I first gave this lecture at Columbia University, in 2015 / Translated into english by Adam Briscoe
When I try to remember my childhood, or when when memories of my childhood strike me, against any decision of my own, it is the rage which hits me the strongest.
The story of my childhood is a story of rage and anger. I don’t recall a single day in which my mother wasn’t standing in front of the television screaming at the politicians, “They are all the same!”; Not a single day in which my dad wasn’t complaining about the doctor of the village, or the mayor, saying that they were always against us, and against our best interests. By us, I mean to say those without money, those who never even went to high school, the jobless, the hopeless.
My grandmother also screamed, and probably her mother and father before her. The screams were passed down from one generation to the next, but the screams saved no one from their destiny. Because we didn’t know what to do with these screams. They were there, among us, encumbering us; we didn’t know to whom they should be addressed, except to the television which always remained cold and placid.
We were uncertain of who was responsible for our unhappiness. It would change according to the nightly news. We had to avoid screaming in front of other people, because my mother always told us that complaining would give us a bad reputation. Plus, even when she was screaming she would never talk about suffering for fear of being seen as a complainer. Because of all of this, as Aimé Césaire said, we always pass by, “detoured by our screams, our cries.”
« And in this inert town, this squalling throng so astonishingly detoured from its cry as this town has been from its movement, from its meaning, not even worried, detoured from its true cry »
I have a particularly humiliating memory of a lost cry: my father became a street sweeper after an accident at the factory left him unable to do his job. One day, during election time, a politician, a minister of the government visited my father’s place of work – his damp corner of the basement. My father had always hated this man and would frequently insult him whenever he appeared on television. When he saw the minister arrive, crowned by his status, evidenced by his clothes and his intimidating demeanor, encircled by his bodyguards and aides, my father didn’t dare say a thing. He kept silent, as though he was suddenly humiliated by all the attributes of power. He came home and said that he hadn’t confronted the minister. In fact, they joked around together. He added, he thought he wasn’t such an asshole after all, but kind of a good guy. I felt wounded by this treason precisely because it was my parents who had taught me to hate this man.
I believe that what so deeply moved me when I discovered the books of Violette Leduc was her cascade of shouts and complaints. The batard famously begins, for example:
“My case is not unique : I am afraid of dying and distressed at being in this world. I haven’t worked, I haven’t studied. I have wept, I have cried out in protest. These tears and cries have taken up a great deal of my time. I am tortured by all the time lost whenever I think about it. I cannot think about things for long, but I can find pleasure in a withered lettuce leaf offering me nothing but regrets to chew over. There is no sustenance in the past. I shall depart as I arrived. Intact, loaded down with the defects that have tormented me. I wish I had been born a statue : I am a slug under my dunghill. Virtues, good qualities, courage, meditation, culture. With arms crossed on my breast I have broken myself against those words.”
She shouts, she cries, she moans. Her complaints are the material of her writing. She addresses her cries to others, to the world, to Simone de Beauvoir, to the reader. Violet Leduc knows how to cry. Her complaints touch us because they provide us another way to live and exist, which is, in her case, a way of screaming.
When I try to remember my mother or my sister, and their disordered rants, I tell myself that they fail where Violette Leduc succeeded because she turned her screams, her cries, her lamentations into an instrument of transformation.
She shows in La Folie en Tete, that there is an ambition, a desire behind this manner of being: “To cry louder, thats the goal for which I strive.” Who would rescue me if I didn’t have my sobs.”
Violette Leduc complains because she asks for help, because she wants to be rescued. And what is so beautiful in saying this is that we understand that her “becoming” is something which takes place outside of her. She complains to bring close this externality, this rescue. What I believe, and what I will try to point out today, is that we can find in this way of thinking, pushed as far as Violette Leduc did, a very powerful reflection about what “becoming” and becoming free and autonomous means.
Violette Leduc was perhaps the only writer who broke away from the figure of the hero who haunts the memoire and particularly the memoires of those sociology calls class transfuges – those rare individuals who weren’t born into a privileged and intellectual milieu, but who as Violette Leduc, James Baldwin or Peter Handke became writers – even if they had three very different childhoods.
I remember when I read Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin, or A Sorrow Beyond Dreams by Peter Handke – I take these authors, though I could take many others, like Pierre Bourdieu – when I read these books, I was unsettled by the impression that these authors had always wanted to be authors, were born “authors,” or in a more general way, were always different, and always more free than their peers ( is it necessary to precise that I talk about Baldwin and Handke with an infinite admiration ).
They had always been more free than the others, and the story of the first part of their life always looked like a struggle against their circumstances, a struggle against the milieu into which they had accidentally been born. This people, the tranfuges, were always-already free in an alienated world where they fought to become something else, against and despite their milieu, in order to achieve their difference. James Baldwin writes, “Any writer, I suppose, feels that the world into which he was born is nothing less than a conspiracy against the cultivation of his talent – which attitude certainly has a great deal to support it.”
Of course, there are many who help them, we know the elementary school teacher of Albert Camus, or the one who takes young James Baldwin to the theater. Of course there are uncertainties, like Pierre Bourdieu who hesitates between adhering to the scholastic system and pursuing the masculine values of his milieu which encourages him to reject school. But these elements are always either supplemental or peripheral to their innate desire for escape, the will to flee, the force of flight.
Most of the time, as Didier Eribon revealed about the auto-analysis of Pierre Bourdieu, the transfuges keep silent about the probable origins of their difference, which is just another way to let us think that they always were, in a dormant state, what they became. The will to flee seems to have always been present, the difficulty comes not from the creation of this will, but from the struggle of the will against unfavorable circumstances.
I despaired in reading the lines of James Baldwin, Pierre Bourdieu or Peter Handke. When I read them, around the time I was eighteen years old, I started to feel the need to write. But if I tried to remember my childhood, I didn’t see myself as a child always-already free, and even less as a born writer. I had written some little texts or poems for Mother’s Day, just like all the other children. And I didn’t do it like a task which would have unveiled what I was dreaming for my future.
On the contrary, as I showed in Finishing off Eddy Bellegueule, my childhood had been a story of my struggle not to flee, where I did everything in my capacity to fit in. I was a gay child, a queer child, effeminate, and I was the shame of my parents, because they always dreams of having as a son a real boy, a tough guy. They found in their arms a skinny little boy with a high voice, who hated soccer, and wanted to play with dolls. When we were around their friends, they would lower their eyes whenever I would speak because they were ashamed of my intonations and what I was saying. So I had the same dreams as them of conforming to what was presented to me as normal. I had wanted to follow the model set by the popular kids in school. I had dreamed that they wouldn’t lower their eyes when I spoke. I hadn’t always dreamed of leaving, even less of writing.
And I had the thought, many years later, while reading Notes of a Native Son: If I hadn’t always been different, wasn’t it proof that I would never be. Was something missing when I was born. I thought: wasn’t it the proof that I would never be a writer? If the writer-tranfuges are born different, extraordinary, then they aren’t ordinary, and in this fact, they maintain the frontier with the ordinary, and a fortiori, with the masses. What becomes fascinating in the life of the transfuge is precisely these extraordinary and unknowable characteristics. The beauty of her life is rightly its distance in relation to that of the reader. It’s this suffering of the frontier that I have shown and which Violette Leduc can free us.
Violette Leduc breaks free from the myth of the autonomy of the will, and she substitutes for this myth a much more generous and inclusive approach. The force of Violette Leduc compared to the the other authors who wrote on this subject, it’s that she problematized the difference between the transfuge and her surroundings. She succeeds in illustrating the difference between the transfuge and her peers without reproducing the distance. In fact, she wasn’t born different, she became different. For her the politics of the difference is the politics of becoming. Contrary to James Baldwin, Violette Leduc writes, about herself, in La Folie en tete: “Vocation: none.” And then she became Violette Leduc. When we read this quote, “vocation: none” and we see that the same person who wrote this sentence wrote la batard, l’asphyxie, Therese et Isabelle, we can feel much more welcomed, because even those who were born “without vocation”, because they were born in a milieu where there were no vocations, we can still imagine a destiny out of the ordinary.
Violette Leduc tells that it’s first the writer Maurice Sachs who put the pen in her hand. And its then, in meeting Simone de Beauvoir that she found the ambition and energy to write her works.For some time, she lives with Maurice Sachs, this man who she « loves and is intimidated by ».Violette Leduc trusts him, she tells him about her violent childhood, this childhood as a “batard” which she had lived. And in hearing these memories, Maurice Sachs tells her, “Your unhappy childhood is starting to piss me off.” This afternoon, take your sack, your fountain pen, your notebook (…) and write’”
So Violette Leduc writes. “I was writing to obey Maurice.” He encourages her to keep going going. “My dear Violette, you only have to keep going,” he told me. Several years later, when she stops seeing Maurice Sachs, and attaches herself to Simone de Beauvoir, maintaining the same relationship to writing. This is another important point about Violette Leduc’s wailing and screaming. Because her cries and shouts inform us of the difficulty of becoming, particularly on the difficulty of becoming different.
Throughout her book La Folie en Tete and again at the end of La Batarde, Violette Leduc shows how it is in self identifying, in admiring Simone de Beauvoir, in loving that which was outside of her, that she wrote. She became different for Simone de Beauvoir.
She said: “I would look everywhere, in vain, for this work of writing if I hadn’t seen her after fifteen days””
She said: “I recount my life, to write became my life. (…) Must I continue to recount it? Mustn’t I? If I stop, I delete Simone de Beauvoir.”
In insisting on the importance of the others, of Simone de Beauvoir, of Maurice Sachs, she pushes past the point of destruction this image of the “innate writer.” She offers hope to those who have been destined to nothingness by society. What’s more, her cries themselves inform us of this construction: because if she cries, its because of the difficulty of constructing the difference. Its not the difficulty of being different. In placing emphasis on these sufferings, she puts emphasis on a process. Between these two models there is a difference, above all, in tempo, the chronology and chronological order of Violette Leduc is immensely more welcoming, and more open. I mean, in any case, that it welcomed me.
The fact that what she became came from the outside doesn’t mean that Violette Leduc isn’t autonomous. It doesn’t mean that she is condemned to spend her whole life in the shadow of Simone de Beauvoir, and that she renounces her singularity and originality. It is precisely through this process of identification and admiration that Violette Leduc earns her autonomy. Her liberty comes from admiration; with Violette Leduc, to admire isn’t to submit, rather a means of self liberation.
I’ve known many people who attest to the fact of not resembling someone and of not admiring someone , because they “remain different.”
A couple of years ago, when I was working in a bookshop to earn a little money, there were always some people who introduced themselves as authors and who would drop off manuscripts at the bookshop and ask us to pass them along to editors. Many would say that they never read books out of fear of admiring other writers and being influenced. I had never imagined, before this job, that there were thousands of people, everywhere, who were writing without ever having read for fear of being influenced and to lose that which they believed made them different. One only had to thumb through the manuscripts to see that they were nothing more than recitations of all the most ordinary urges and categories of thought of the social world.
When I was in middle school and I saw the boys I had grown up with in my village drop-out of school very young, and eliminating their chances of becoming something other than a factory worker like their fathers and grandfathers before them, this was almost always a struggle between their autonomy, on the one hand, and the educational system on the other. Of course, they disqualified themselves because they were disqualified, but their participation was essential to the social reproduction.
For both the writers and the boys from school, what they call their autonomy was the most perfect realization of heteronomy. They were falling in the trap, because they were condemned to be nothing other than that which Society had made of them, that which they called their “difference” was, in fact, exactly what society had placed inside them. Violette Leduc, however, through her admiration of Simone de Beauvoir, achieved the difference. “Staying different” becomes an oxymoron. She doesn’t have to find it, hidden somewhere inside of her, rather she must commit herself to creating it.
We can’t not see the irreducible opposition between Baldwin-Handke and Violette Leduc and their manners of presenting the becoming. Between these two models there is a difference, above all, in tempo, the chronology and chronological order of Violette Leduc is immensely more welcoming, and more open. I mean, in any case, that it welcomed me.