Translated by Michael Lucey
One day, a very old man said to me: “Once we’ve lost everything, our hopes, our dreams, our ability to fight and to invent things, we won’t have anything left, not even our feelings.” I looked at him and smiled, which is what I always do when I don’t know what to say.
I think I picked up this unpleasant habit during childhood – unpleasant because it makes me feel stupid. I learned to use laughter in situations in which I felt out of my depth because only a hair’s breadth seemed to separate misunderstanding from violence, and laughing seemed the best way to stop the one from turning into the other.
If someone insulted me, I would smile then too, as if trying to convince the person insulting me that it wasn’t serious, as if I could make him believe that his insult was a joke, nothing more, nothing less.
So sometimes I ask myself, “Is this smile a sign of a childhood that has been scarred by insults? Did you, Toni, also smile when you heard the word nigger? Did you, too, keep a smile on your face, a smile that made you feel stupid?”
I hadn’t understood what the old man was trying to say, and after that encounter I never saw him again. I was never able to ask him what he meant. He disappeared from the park where up till then I had run into him almost every day for several years, when, after having spent the day writing, I would go walk for a few kilometers through the city in order not to lose contact with the world.
A few months ago, I was asked to participate in a discussion about violence and politics, and it was there, surrounded by the other people who had been invited, eyes dazzled by the spotlights shining on our faces, that I remembered the sentence the old man had said. I was seated at a table with three or four other people, and the journalist who was moderating the discussion suggested that we all watch a video clip together. An enormous screen lit up next to me and the segment began to play. It was a chase scene. In the foreground was what looked to be a middle-class man, wearing a white shirt and suit pants. He was trying to get away from several dozen other men, obviously angry, who were running after him yelling and screaming. The man in the white shirt was struggling to get away from them and you could see the fear on his face. He was trying to run, but dozens of hands grabbed for him and held him back, holding on to him like dozens of tentacles that all belonged to a single creature. Even their cries seemed to be holding him back and wearing him down, as if the cries had as much strength as the hands that gripped his shirt and were tearing away at the fabric. His clothing fell in strips onto the asphalt while he just kept on struggling, determined to get away, panting, bare chested. Finally, after a few minutes, out of breath, he managed to get to a chain link fence. He grabbed hold, climbed up, and got himself to the other side, out of reach.
The screen went blank and the journalist explained the scene we had just seen: the man in the shirt was an important executive for an airline company and the angry men were employees of the company. One of the company’s committees, of which the executive was a member, had recently announced that thousands of jobs were to be eliminated even though the airline company was earning millions of euros each year.
The employees had decided to organize a protest when they learned the news. They met near the airport with flags and signs, and the executive appeared as well.
I don’t know exactly what happened. They probably said to themselves that finally they had in front of them the physical manifestation of the poverty they were threatened with in the years ahead because of the layoffs that were coming. It’s a rare occurrence: there are so many of the kinds of violence that afflict us without our ever being able to identify or to reach them, without our ever being able to see the cause with our own eyes. There are so many women and men, as Aimé Césaire said, who miss the chance to cry out because they don’t know where to direct their cries and against whom.
I have found in Toni Morrison many of these lost cries. I especially remember the cry of Claudia, in The Bluest Eye, a cry that shook me deeply. Claudia, you will remember, is a young black girl who hides in her bedroom and digs out the blue eyes and pulls off the blond hair from her dolls. She pulls off their heads and breaks them on the bars of her bed, she submits them to all the kinds of torture that her mind can imagine because she has understood the role that white people play in the tragedies and the suffering that the black community endures. But there is simply no way for Claudia to reach the people who are actually responsible for what is happening to her and all around her. All she has within reach are the blond dolls, and so she exacts her vengeance on them.
So, when those airline employees actually saw one of the people who were directly responsible, when an executive who had played a determining role in the decision to lay off three thousand people appeared before them, they began shoving him around and ripping off his shirt.
Here is the question the journalist asked us: is this violence, the violence of ripping the shirt off of a frightened man, someone reduced to the state of a fearful, small, defenseless animal, in any way legitimate? Or is this physical aggression unacceptable? Can violence be met with violence?
The other people around the table were all in agreement. I watched them and I listened to what they said. They said that even if we should never offer a justification for physical violence, and if there were surely always other non-violent ways of resolving a situation, still the violence of the employees was understandable. A union representative was there, more radical than the others, and he explained that the reaction of the employees was not only understandable, it was normal, and perhaps even necessary. Then the journalist turned to me and asked me this question: Is it necessary to use violence against violence?
It was at this moment that I remembered the words of the old man in the park and I responded that in my view the question the journalist was asking me was not the right one if the point was to understand the scene he had just shown us. His question was mistaken and any answer to it would therefore also be mistaken. This was because to pose the question in these terms was to assume that, in the moment during which the group of men ripped the shirt off of the executive, there were two forms of violence, two forces, that were confronting each other: on the one hand, the violence of the person who was having three thousand people laid off at the same time as the business he was working for was making money hand over fist; on the other hand, the violence of the group that was physically attacking someone’s body. It is only assuming a consensus regarding the duality of the forces confronting each other that it is possible to ask which of the two is more violent, or if it is justified or legitimate to use one of these forces to oppose the other.
Whereas, I said to the journalist, we might rather decide to think that the video clip does not show the confrontation of two acts of violence, but a single one that moves from one body into others. What I saw, watching that scene of the shirt being torn off, was not two opposing acts of violence, but a single one. The violent gesture that consists in forcing three thousand people into poverty and the gesture of ripping the shirt off of the man who made that decision are one and the same gesture, which has passed through several intermediate stages.
It is the executive who, by committing a violent act, placed the employees in a situation where there was no other choice for them but to become violent. Or rather, it was his violent act that they prolonged, his own violence for which we could say they became a conductor, as if it were an electric current.
And perhaps it’s the case that some of those employees, when they got home, regretted having acted in this way, who knows? Regretted having laid hands on a frightened man in order to rip off his clothes. Maybe come of them felt some kind of guilt at having attacked a man, no matter how horrible, how detestable a man he may have been.
There is a kind of guilt that people sometimes feels after having committed an act that is unlike them, that seems alien to who they are. It’s what happens when you wake up after a night where you drank too much and did things that make you uneasy, precisely because those things seem to have been done by someone else who was using your body.
And that is why the words of the old man had come back to me. When we have lost everything, even our feelings won’t be ours. What he meant to say was that even our feelings, our affects, can be stolen from us. Even those things that seem the most internal, the most personal, like our joys and our fury, can be imposed upon us from outside and can have nothing in common with who or what we are. This was probably the case for the anger that drove those employees to chase the man wearing the shirt. I don’t mean to say that this anger, because it doesn’t originate within us, cannot be beneficial, cannot lead to social progress or other advances that improve people’s lives. That’s a different question. For the moment, I would like to focus on the fact that feelings can be alien states that pass from one body to another.
That evening, I met up with my two closest friends, Didier and Geoffroy, and we talked abotu the debate I had taken part it. After talking for a few seconds, we became worried about the possible punishments those who had torn off the executive’s shirt might be subject to. And as I was thinking over what I had seen on the screen a few hours earlier, I said to them that if you really thought it through, and if Justice was being consistent with itself, with the discourse it is always speaking, it was the boss who should be punished for the shirt that had been torn off.
Of course I was exaggerating for effect, underlining the absurdity of the system, throwing its contradictions in its face, since I don’t really see what interest there can be in punishing people, whether or not the person being punished is responsible. At that moment in time, Geoffroy was in the process of writing Juger, his book about the penal system. He was demonstrating that justice, which is thought of as a space in which passions are suspended and violence is held at bay, is, to a considerable degree, an institution animated by fierce drives that find expression particularly in its will to inflict punishment. So I not only asserted that it wasn’t the employees who should be judged responsible, but moreover, it was the boss who should be convicted twice over: first, for the violence exercised in the lay-offs themselves, and second for having continued by compelling the employees to their acts of violence, injecting them with violence, so to speak, extending his own violence in their bodies. In the life of any given individual, the violence he or she commits can be a good deal more traumatizing than the violence he or she experiences, and that is what the airline employees had been exposed to.
This theme of violence runs through Toni Morisson’s entire body of work – the kinds of force, the rage and the fury, that course through the flesh of a specific people without actually belonging to them.
From this point of view, the first sentence of the novel, God Help the Child, would seem to resume in magnificent fashion all of Toni Morisson’s work – and I wish I had more time to explain at greater length how much so many of the magnificent sentences to be found in Toni’s books have moved me, sentences that seem to condense the entirety of truth into a few words, all the ugliness and all the beauty of the world, how many times I have found myself in tears, alone in my room, late at night – my preferred moment for reading for quite some time now – how many hours I’ve spent crying simply from reading that first sentence from God Help the Child, “It’s not my fault,” or rereading, over and over, the first sentence of Home, “They rose up like men.”
I must speak to you about God Help the Child. In that book, Toni Morrison tells the story of how a mother, Sweetness, mistreats her daughter, Bride, and the consequences of this mistreatment. Sweetness is a woman whose skin is black, but a light skinned black. It turns out that nearly everyone in her family is light skinned – to such a degree, in fact, that her grandmother even successfully passes for white. When Sweetness gives birth to Bride, she realizes that her daughter does not look like her. Her skin is extremely black, black as night, black as the Sudan. This is what she says in her first monologue:
It’s not my fault. So you can’t blame me. I didn’t do it and have no idea how it happened. It didn’t take more than an hour after they pulled her out from between my legs to realize something was wrong. Really wrong. She was so black she scared me. Midnight black, Sudanese black. I’m light-skinned, with good hair, what we call high yellow, and so is Lula Ann’s father / Lula Ann is the other name of Bride /. Ain’t nobody in my family anywhere near that color. Tar is the closest I can think of yet her hair don’t go with the skin. It’s different—straight but curly like those naked tribes in Australia. You might think she’s a throwback, but throwback to what? You should’ve seen my grandmother; she passed for white and never said another word to any one of her children. Any letter she got from my mother or my aunts she sent right back, unopened. Finally they got the message of no message and let her be.
Sweetness reacts so badly to the birth of her daughter because she knows that the darker a black person’s skin, the more they will be discriminated against, both by whites and within the black community itself. So when Sweetness discovers the color of her little girl’s skin, she is simultaneously ashamed and afraid. She can’t understand it. She grabs a blanket and covers the baby’s head in order to suffocate it. She starts to press down and then immediately she stops, she doesn’t have what it takes to commit a murder. But later, throughout all the years of her daughter’s childhood, she will make her suffer because of the color of her skin.
It can be understood from the book that the violence she enacts is not hers; it comes from the exterior world, and it runs through Sweetness. It is because she understands that this violence comes from somewhere beyond her that she feels guilty, and that the first sentence of the book, “It’s not my fault,” is so crucial.
I am perfectly aware that people could point out in opposition to what I’m saying the fact that by definition all of our actions, and all of the feelings that give rise to them, originate in the external world. They are all determined by a past, by social conditioning, by a class habitus. That doesn’t mean, however, that among all our choices, our tastes, our acts, and our feelings, all of which are determined in some way, certain among them might not belong more to us than others do. We know this, we feel this, and that is what explains why some of them leave an aftertaste of guilt in our mouths, while others don’t.
The madness and the violence that run through Sethe in the novel Beloved are just as foreign as those Sweetness experiences. Sethe is a slave. One day, she decides to run away from the plantation to which she belongs. She leaves, runs through the forest, braving thorns and traps, crossing rivers. She manages to escape but is found relatively quickly. She hides in a woodshed with her two daughters when the men who are looking for her come to try to take her back. When she hears them coming closer, she kills one daughter by slitting her throat. (She tries to kill the other as well, but does not have time.) She does this because she does not want her daughter to have to live the life of a slave that she had lived, because she thinks that the life of a slave is worse than death.
After having committed the murder, Sethe knows that she had been taken over by a foreign psychological state. The result of this is that when the ghost of the daughter she killed comes back, she will try everything she can to gain her love and her forgiveness.
Just as in the story of the airline executive and his employees, even if we have here two extremely different degrees of violence, we need to ask if the violence that pushed Sethe to cut the throat of her daughter is not the prolongation of the violence of slavery. She does not respond to the violence of slavery with her own violence. Rather it is still the violence of slavery. Sethe, just like Sweetness, should be able to say “It’s not my fault.”
In the days following the discussion on violence, while I was on my long late afternoon walks through parks and streets, I would replay over and over in my head the images of the man with his shirt ripped off.
Naturally, the idea that finally took hold of me, the one that couldn’t help but arise from the thoughts that went through me as the images appeared on the screen, was that the executive was himself the symptom of something, just as the employees were. Maybe the emotions and feelings he had, and therefore his actions, the violence he exercised, were also alienated states for him. Perhaps he would need to seek out the origins of this violence in some other place, in capitalism itself, in the head of the airline company, or in individuals who, from somewhere within the institutions of the European Union, set rules for the economy and encouraged lay-off programs like that of the airline company.
The question as to where the origins of violence are to be found is a difficult one, violence being found everywhere. If you dwell on it long enough, you might end up with the impression that violence was born even before women and men existed, as if humanity were merely a means utilized by violence to perpetuate itself.
In the novel Sula, two young girls are playing with a boy near a river. Sula grabs his hands and spins him around when suddenly, accidentally, she lets go. The young boy is thrown and falls into the river, where he drowns. Sula’s friend witnesses the scene but says nothing. This accident, which leads to a death, is an important stage in the friendship that links Sula and her friend. When I read those pages, I asked myself: is destruction the primary condition on which relations between individuals are built? Just as the boy’s death seals the friendship between Sula and her friend, we could ask who it is we destroy when we establish a connection with another person, when we found a society. Do creation and destruction always go hand in hand, or creation and exclusion at the very least?
Michel Foucault has shown how, in any society, each affirmation has a corresponding exclusion. Society created Reason, and the very idea of Reason excluded people who were mad, indeed often destroying them and putting them to death. The world we live in defined what constitutes a “normal” sexuality, and it did so by excluding sexual heresies, and burning and hanging LGBTQ people. French society invented itself and continues to define itself, over and over again, by means of a within and a without, those who are included and those who are excluded, French citizens who are allowed to live on French territory, and crowds of others who are allowed to die in the Mediterranean Sea because France wants nothing to do with them. The friendship between Sula and her friend, in the way of any grouping, in the way anything is affirmed, is founded on the death of Chicken Little, the boy who drowned in the river.
So if all of that is true, how would it be possible to find the causes of violence? How could it be possible, if violence is there, lurking inside every kind of relation, every breath, inside any affirmation that “I am”? I am French. I am friends with so-and-so. I think therefore I am.
I would have liked to see the old man from the park again to tell him that I had finally understood his words, and to apologize for my stupid smile.
Above all, I would have liked to thank him and tell him that what he said to me had allowed me, a few weeks after he disappeared, to remember one of the most crucial scenes from my childhood, one that had escaped my memory. Even our most important memories escape us if no one from the present moment in which we are living gives us the means to think about our past. Childhood contains everything, and I have come to understand since reading Didier Eribon’s Returning to Reims that it is our present that decides what we see in the infinite past of our childhoods. We pick a selection of scenes from the early years of our childhood, from which we perceive the totality of that childhood, while eliminating an immense portion of the moments we lived through, because they don’t fit into the totality that we have constructed for ourselves.
This memory that I had effaced was of something that took place in 2001. It was a few days after the attacks on the World Trade Center, which is how I am able to situate precisely the moment at which it happened. That evening, my brother tried to kill my father. He grabbed his hair, and he slammed his head against the wall in the kitchen. He was really making a mess of him. My father was screaming, begging – and I had never heard my father beg anyone for anything. His face was disappearing, colored red with blood and covered with more and more wounds. My mother tried to keep me out of the way; she was throwing glasses at my brother to get him to stop, but she kept missing her target and the glasses shattered when they hit the floor. She kept whispering in my ear not to look, but I wanted to see it all. After all, I was the person who had incited this fight between my father and my brother. It was something I had wanted, something I had worked for. It was my vengeance.
The story of my vengeance began quite early one morning. Imagine the scene: I am drinking my hot chocolate in the kitchen, sitting next to my mother and my older brother. They’ve just woken up and are smoking cigarettes while they watch television. They’ve been up for only twenty minutes, but they have already smoked three or four cigarettes each, and the room is filled with an impenetrably thick smoke. My father and sisters weren’t there.
I told my mother that I needed to go see a friend in the village to help him fix his bike. She nodded without taking her eyes off the television. I got dressed and left the house, slamming the door and heading out into the cold, walking among the red brick walls of northern France, surrounded by the smell of manure and fog. And then I realized I had left something at home, I no longer remember what exactly, so I turned around and headed back.
When I went into the house, without knocking on the door, I could see the silhouettes of my mother and brother wrapped in smoke and closer together than when I had left.
And I could see what was going on: my mother was giving my older brother some money.
She was taking advantage of the dim light and the absence of all the others to give him some money, but I knew my father had told my mother not to do that. He had ordered her never to give my brother any money again, because he knew that my brother would use the money to buy alcohol and drugs, and that once he was drunk he would go tag the supermarkets and the bus stops or else set the bleachers at the village sportsground on fire. He’d already done this a couple of times and my father had told my mother that if she gave him any more money he’d stop letting her use his credit card. So when my mother saw that I’d caught her, she leaped up. She came towards me, furious, and then she hesitated. She was calculating what her best strategy would be. She tried something different, changing her tone and starting over with a sweeter, more imploring voice, explaining that my brother needed some money for lunch at school and claiming that was something my father just didn’t understand; I nodded without saying anything.
But then two weeks later my mother made a fatal mistake. She didn’t yet know that before the day was over she would pay for it in a painful way. It was seven in the morning and we were alone. We weren’t talking. I was getting ready for school and when I opened the door to leave she said to me, between two puffs on her cigarette and for no particular reason You know you’re really not the kind of kid I dreamed of. You’re not even ten yet and already you’ve brought shame down on this whole family. Everyone in the village says you’re a little fag. I’ve got no idea if it’s even true but I know all of us have to go around feeling ashamed because of you. She had often said this kind of thing to me, but rarely so harshly and so directly.
I didn’t answer her. I left the house, closing the door without a word and I don’t know why but I didn’t cry. Still, I felt the taste of those words in my mouth all day long, the air and all the sounds around me felt like those words, all the food I ate tasted bitter.
I already knew everything she told me. That’s why I couldn’t endure her forcing me to confront it. Most of the time, we know who we are and the story of our life is a series of struggles to avoid being confronted with what we already know about ourselves. Some men go crazy from having been forced to face up to what they know or to what they are. In the novel Home, when Frank Money kills a little girl by shooting her in the face, it is because the girl performed a sex act on him, and in doing so she confronted him with his pedophilia. Frank knows he is probably a pedophile, but he struggles not to see it. And when he kills the little girl, it is a way of not facing up to who he is.
That very evening, after my mother spoke to me the way she did, I returned home. My mother was putting food on the table and my father was turning on the television. We ate without speaking; and then suddenly, in the middle of the meal, I yelled something out loud. With my eyes closed, I yelled really fast and really loud that my mother was giving money to my brother Vincent, that I saw it happen and that she made me promise I wouldn’t tell my father. My father cut me off. He turned to my mother and asked her if it was true. He raised his voice. He stood up and clenched his fists as he walked around the table. I had known he would react this way.
I looked at my mother, unable to control my curiosity. I wanted her to suffer for having humiliated me that morning and I knew that causing a fight between my brother and my father was the best way of hurting her. When our gazes crossed, she said to me: You little fucking piece of shit. I thought she was going to throw up as she looked at me. I dropped my head, starting to feel ashamed of what I had just done, even if, at this moment, the pleasure of my vengeance still had the upper hand. (It was later that only shame would be left to me.)
My father exploded. He couldn’t control himself. He always went crazy like that when someone lied to him. He threw his glass of red wine, and it shattered on the floor. He yelled so loudly that even my mother was afraid. She grabbed me in her arms and hid my sisters behind her. She wanted to calm my father down but it wasn’t working, I knew there was no way he would calm down. He was punching the wall with his fists, and finally he told my brother that when it came right down to it, he was a total loser. It was then, at that very moment, that my brother got up and jumped on my father.
He punched him. He punched him again to get him to shut up. He slammed my father’s head against the wall with all his might, with his whole body. Then came the cries of pain, the insults, and more cries of pain. I could feel the warm tears of my mother falling on my head and I thought to myself: she got what was coming to her. She tried to cover my eyes, but I watched the scene from between her fingers. I watched the spots of purple blood against the yellow tiles. My brother left my father lying nearly dead on the floor, and ran off.
Families — like society itself — are a curse because not only do they crush you with, bury you in, their own violence, they also (and perhaps this above all) turn you into a cog within their violent machinery, they force you into states of being that are not yours, just as the system of slavery forced Sethe into a state of being that was not her own.
But if on that day when my brother tried to kill my father because of me, my feelings were not my own, to whom did they belong? I could have asked the old man this question if I had been fortunate enough to see him again. To whom did my violence belong? How could it be traced back to its origins? Was it the same violence that my mother had planted in me when she told me I was the shame of the family? Or was it the violence my father exercised when, forbidding my mother to do what she wanted, keeping her home in the house all day long, he put her in an impossible situation, with a life that was too much to bear and that inevitably made her into a mean person?
I don’t know. Perhaps if our feelings and our violent impulses and acts do not necessarily belong to us, if the thread leading back to their birth is too hard to follow, if that violence is always-already there, before we even arrive, then the question of knowing where it comes from, who it comes from, is too imprecise and bound to come to nothing. Perhaps we should not be asking: why is there violence in the world? Or who gives rise to this violence? Rather, knowing that violence always exists, that it is a point of departure, an immediate condition, we should ask: what can be done to reduce it as much as possible? Who really works to make violence disappear?
Given that we all participate in the circulation of violence, the airline executive’s responsibility was not so much that he had been a link in a chain along which violence flowed, but rather that he had not made use of the power at his disposal to diminish that violence. To be in a position of dominance is to have power, and to have power is to have the tools, symbolic or cultural or economic capital, either to prolong violence or to contain it. The slave owners who claimed Sethe could have chosen to set her free. They would not have ended slavery by doing so, but they would have diminished the violence that was present in the space within which they held the advantage. Above all, they could have diminished potential violence, violence still to come. Sethe would never have been obliged to take refuge in the woodshed, she would never have killed her child. So it is that even if dominated people can be accomplices, the dominant are always at fault.