Archives de Catégorie: Politique

It’s not my fault

Translated by Michael Lucey

I

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.

FRANCE-AVIATION-SOCIAL-AIR-FRANCE-DEMO

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.

II

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.

GODH

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.”

III

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.

Briques

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.

 

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Classé dans English, Littérature, Politique, Roman

Journal de New York

Journal publié dans Les Inrocks

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Premier jour

Réveil. Onze heures. Le bruit de Manhattan, au loin. Sirènes de police, moteurs, hurlements. A coté de moi, posé sur le lit, ouvert, le livre de Primo Levi, Les naufragés et les rescapés que j’ai lu hier jusqu’au milieu de la nuit.

A l’instant où mes yeux s’ouvrent une réflexion de Primo Levi me revient, enveloppe ma conscience et m’empêche de penser à quoi que ce soit d’autre pour le reste de la journée ensuite.

Levi raconte qu’au fil des années qui passaient, après son retour d’Auschwitz, il se percevait lui-même de moins en moins comme le témoin direct de la violence des camps de concentration. Ou du moins, il disait qu’il ne faisait pas parti de ceux qui avaient éprouvé cette violence à son degrés le plus poussé, ceux-là étaient morts – c’est étrange, même le mot violence parait faible et dérisoire ici.

Primo Levi explique que ceuxqui ont éprouvé la violence des camps jusqu’a son extrémité la plus terrible ont précisément été tués ou réduits au silence par elle. Ceux qui ont été frappé par la violence la plus extrême ont, par définition, été détruits par cette violence, et ce n’est que ceux qui ont été épargnés à certains moments ou qui ont bénéficié de quelques infimes instants de répit qui ont pu témoigner de la Shoah – répit, bénéficier, tous les mots perdent leur sens. Primo Levi va même jusqu’a dire : Seuls ceux qui ont été « privilégiés » à certains moments dans les camps ont pu revenir et parler des camps, et l’expression « privilégiés » me pousse au bord des larmes.

Si ceux qui ont éprouvé la violence dans son intégralité ne peuvent par définition pas en témoigner, alors témoigner, c’est toujours parler pour quelqu’un d’autre, à la place d’un autre. C’est lui donner sa voix. Etre témoin de la violence, c’est être le témoin de cette impossibilité, de cet échec. C’est lutter désespérément contre l’impossibilité absolue.

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Avec Ocean Vuong à la New York Public Library

 

Deuxième jour

Soleil. J’ouvre mes mails au café, en prenant mon petit déjeuner. Je réponds à quelques-uns, découragé d’avance en pensant qu’il faudra répondre aux réponses, puis je pars rejoindre Ocean à Bryant Park, derrière la Public Library.

Ocean a publié son premier recueil de poèmes il y a quelques mois, Night Sky with exit wounds. Nous avons la même éditrice en Allemagne, c’est elle qui nous a présenté l’un à l’autre. J’ai lu les poèmes d’Ocean juste après l’avoir rencontré et pendant des semaines j’ai été bouleversé, je ne savais plus penser à autre chose.

Ocean est né au Vietnam, dans une famille analphabète. Sa mère ne sait pas écrire son nom. Ils ont émigré en Amérique quand il était enfant. Ils ont fui.

Nous passons l’après-midi à rire, à dire des choses sans importance et à parler de littérature.

Ocean me raconte une histoire : un jour sa mère est venue écouter une de ses lectures dans une librairie. C’était la première fois qu’elle entrait dans une librairie. A la fin de la rencontre, le public a applaudi Ocean. Alors sa mère est venue vers lui, elle pleurait. Ocean lui a demandé ce qui lui arrivait. Elle a répondu : Je n’aurais jamais pensé qu’un jour autant de Blancs applaudiraient un de mes enfants.

 

Quelques jours plus tard ( C’est toujours le mois de février )

J’essaye de travailler, je ne fais rien. Parfois mes journées sont comme ça, je n’arrive pas, je peux rester six, sept heures devant l’écran sans écrire un seul mot, la journée est longue, je cherche des manières de la faire passer plus vite, je déploie des stratégies, je me tends des pièges à moi-même, je reste sous la douche le plus longtemps possible, je compte le temps, je vais acheter du mauvais café au supermarché et tandis que je marche, je pense « ça fera dix bonnes minutes de perdues », je vais à la poste où je n’ai rien à faire, et je me répète aussi, encore, « dix bonnes minutes », et tout le temps j’espère que la journée va se terminer mais dès qu’elle est terminée, je panique, je voudrais la retenir, je voudrais que le temps ne passe plus, et le lendemain la situation se reproduit, je me lève et la journée devant moi à l’air sans fin possible, jusqu’à la fin effectivement atteinte que la panique remplit.

Ce jour-là vers quinze heures je capitule. Je vais à la salle de sport dans le Upper West Side et je cours, je cours de toutes mes forces.

Fin d’après-midi. Je reçois un message de Xavier qui me dit qu’il est en Angleterre pour terminer le tournage de son prochain film, John F. Donovan, et quand je vois la vitesse a laquelle il travaille tout en faisant des films si importants, j’ai encore plus honte de n’avoir rien fait.

Le soir je bois beaucoup pour ne plus penser.

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Plus tard encore

Un éditeur italien me contacte. Il s’apprête à publier des livres de James Baldwin encore jamais traduits en Italie, et il me demande d’écrire une préface. J’accepte. Chaque matin je me réveille – toujours à la même heure, aux alentours de dix heures et demi – je vais marcher à Central Park, je bois quelques cafés et je remonte à l’appartement pour travailler. J’ouvre les Oeuvres de Baldwin, je lis, je prends des notes, j’essaye de former des phrases.

Quelque chose me frappe dans son livre The Devil Finds Work : quand Baldwin, qui vient d’une famille de pasteurs pauvres, découvre la littérature et le cinéma, alors que dans son enfance les gens autour de lui étaient plutôt privés de l’accès à la culture, il se lance dans une espèce de course pour voir et pour lire le plus d’oeuvres possibles sur la vie des Noirs en Amérique, sur l’exclusion dont ils sont l’objet, il se cherche dans ces oeuvres, il essaye de trouver dans l’art des représentations de lui-même, de sa vie – et il doit lutter pour ça, car il se rend compte que la culture s’adresse la plupart du temps aux Blancs.

Mais voilà : plus il lit de choses sur ce qui lui apparait comme étant lui-même, sur le monde dans lequel il a grandi, sur la vie des classes populaires noires, et plus il devient une personne différente, plus il se différencie du monde de son enfance, jusqu’a devenir l’écrivain qu’il est devenu.

Comme si voir ce qu’il est lui permettait de voir toutes les logiques sociales qui l’ont constitué et qui ont formé son corps, le racisme, l’oppression, la pauvreté, et comme si prendre conscience de tout cela lui permettait justement de produire une forme de distance par rapport à ces forces sociales, d’essayer de s’en dégager et d’inventer sa liberté.

Se voir, se transformer, il n’y a pas de différence.

La nuit, je suis fatigué de lire en anglais ( une bonne partie des essais de Baldwin n’existent pas en français ) et je lis Impatience de Francois Bon. Magnifique.

 

Février, toujours

Je continue de travailler sur Baldwin. Le plus souvent je commence à écrire vers midi et je m’arrête autour de dix huit heures, à bout de forces. Je vais marcher plusieurs heures dans la ville, je descends les avenues de Central Park jusqu’a Wall Street, j’essaye de substituer l’épuisement physique à la fatigue intellectuelle.

Le soir au restaurant je retrouve Tash Aw. C’est une histoire à peine croyable, mais il est né à Kuala Lumpur, et il vit maintenant entre New-York, Londres et… Hallencourt, le village du Nord de la France où je suis né et que je décris dans mes deux premiers romans. Il faudrait plus de temps pour raconter comment il a atterri là-bas. En tout cas il a écrit un long article pour London Review of Books sur Histoire de la violence et sur Eddy, connaissant bien le village, la réalité que je décris. Depuis, nous avons échangé des messages, nous nous sommes vu plusieurs fois, et nous sommes devenu amis. C’est a peine imaginable d’être a New-York et de voir quelqu’un avec qui je peux parler du petit chemin de terre où je construisais des cabanes avec mes voisins entre l’âge six et onze ans, en sachant que cette personne visualise parfaitement le chemin, sa morphologie, l’odeur de la terre et de la craie.

Mars

Pluie. Laideur de New-York, parfois. J’allume la télé et je tombe sur l’interview d’un homme politique Républicain. Quand il parle je sens le dégoût qui remplit mon corps. Je voudrais vomir.

Je l’écoute parler de la nécessité pour les Etats de faire des économies. Quand il prononce le mot « économies » il veut dire qu’il faut affamer les pauvres encore plus, déposséder les Noirs encore plus violemment. Mais il ne le dit pas. C’est ça la droite : le mensonge. La gauche dit ce qu’elle veut faire, augmenter les allocations familiales, transformer le système scolaire, augmenter les impôts des plus riches. Mais la droite, elle, ne dit jamais ce qu’elle veut vraiment, réellement faire. Elle ne dit jamais : Nous allons affamer les pauvres et mettre en prison les Noirs. Ce qui caractérise la droite, c’est ce décalage entre ce qu’ils font et ce qu’ils disent qu’ils font. Parfois la gauche trahit ses promesses, c’est vrai, mais c’est autre chose, ne pas tenir une promesse et faire du déni la définition même de son discours et de son être, ça n’a rien a voir.

 

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Skype avec Didier Eribon et Geoffroy de Lagasnerie

 

Le soir, skype avec Didier et Geoffroy, comme toujours quand je suis en Amérique. Ils me manquent. Terriblement. Didier travaille avec Thomas Ostermeier qui adapte Retour à Reims pour le théâtre, leur collaboration marche très bien, Didier a l’air heureux et je suis heureux de le voir heureux – il me semble que l’amitié c’est aussi simple, et aussi beau que ça.

Lectures du mois : Purge de Sofi Oksanen, Infidèles d’Abdellah Taia, et La convocation, d’Herta Muller.

Avril

Ce mois-ci, En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule sort aux Etats-Unis. La soirée de présentation du livre se fera sous forme de dialogue avec Teju Cole à la librairie Albertine.

J’arrive à la librairie. Dehors, la tempête. Le vent était si fort qu’il a projeté mon corps sur le trottoir dans la rue, je marchais et je suis tombé, renversé par une bourrasque.

Le dialogue commence, et au milieu de la soirée, quelqu’un dans la salle me demande si dans Eddy il y a des choses que je n’ai pas dites sur mon père.

Soudain un souvenir me revient. Très souvent les rencontres comme ça produisent cet effet, elles bouleversent ma mémoire.

Il y a longtemps, j’avais douze ans, je marchais avec ma meilleure amie Amelie dans les rues du village ou j’ai grandi, c’était la nuit, et tout à coup nous avons trouvé un portable par terre, sur l’asphalte. Nous l’avons ramassé et nous l’avons gardé.

Quelques jours plus tard la police a appelé mes parents pour leur dire que j’avais volé un téléphone. Je trouvais l’accusation exagérée, mais mon père paraissait croire la police plus que moi. Il est venu me chercher dans ma chambre, il m’a giflé et il m’a emmené au commissariat.

Il n’a rien dit dans la voiture mais quand nous nous sommes assis devant la police, tout de suite mon père s’est mis à me défendre, avec une force que je n’avais jamais rencontrée ni dans sa voix ni dans son regard. Il leur disait que je n’aurais jamais volé un téléphone, que je l’avais trouvé, c’est tout. Il disait que son fils – moi – allait devenir un professeur, un médecin, il ne savait pas encore, qu’en tout cas il – moi – ferait des « grandes études », que son fils n’avait rien a voir avec les délinquants ( sic ). Qu’il était fier de moi. Je ne savais pas qu’il pensait tout ça de moi ( qu’il m’aimait ? ). Pourquoi est ce qu’il ne me le disait jamais ?

Plusieurs années après, quand j’ai fui le village et que je suis allé habiter à Paris, quand le soir dans les bars je rencontrais des hommes et qu’ils me demandaient quelles étaient mes relations avec ma famille, je leur répondais toujours que je détestais mon père. Ce n’était pas vrai. Je savais que je l’aimais mais je ressentais le besoin de dire aux autres que je le détestais. Pourquoi ? Je reproduisais la même chose que lui quelques années plus tôt : exactement comme il ne me disait jamais qu’il m’aimait, et que je l’avais découvert par hasard face à la police, je ne voulais pas admettre ce que je ressentais pour lui. Est ce qu’il est normal d’avoir honte d’aimer ?

Apres la rencontre avec Teju Cole, nous allons diner, Tash vient avec nous et il y a aussi l’équipe d’Albertine, que j’adore. Une femme à coté de nous interrompt Tash pour lui dire a quel point elle a été bouleversée par son dernier roman, publié en France sous le titre Un milliardaire cinq étoiles.

Lecture de la nuit : relecture de La supplication de Svetlana Alexievitch. Chef d’oeuvre absolu.

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Portraits par Sebastian Kim pour la publication de The End of Eddy aux Etats-Unis

 

Avril

Je suis invité à une fête organisée par la revue The Paris Review.

Quand j’arrive je croise Lorin, nous parlons un long moment. Dès qu’il s’éloigne je ressens une solitude infinie. Je regarde autour de moi : je vois la bourgeoisie new-yorkaise en smoking et robes de gala, je vois les serveuses et les serveurs qui portent des plateaux avec dessus des coupes de champagnes. Je voudrais m’enfuir.

Ce que je vois, c’est la capacité de la bourgeoise à prendre un verre sur un plateau sans jamais regarder la personne qui les sert, en continuant leur conversation, comme si les serveurs n’étaient pas là. Je serais incapable – je veux dire même techniquement incapable, sans renverser le plateau – d’ignorer quelqu’un à ce point-là.

Combien d’années faut-il d’apprentissage et de dressage dans la bourgeoise pour réussir à faire ça ? Combien de temps est ce qu’il faut pour apprendre à ignorer ?

La bourgeoisie c’est l’apprentissage de l’ignorance ( le dictionnaire dit : « L’ignorance est un décalage entre la réalité et une perception de cette réalité ».)

( une voix dans ma tête : et si la bourgeoisie regardait les serveurs, est ce que cela rendrait plus acceptable le fait que des humains servent des humains ? )

Je bois le plus possible. Le lendemain j’envoie un mail à Zadie : Je suis désolé si je t’ai dit des choses bêtes hier, j’avais trop bu ( vague souvenir que nous avons parlé de son dernier roman Swing Time). Elle me répond : Ne t’en fais pas, j’étais encore plus saoule que toi, je ne me souviens de rien.

Mai

Elections présidentielles en France. La politique me fait pleurer. J’étais à New-York déjà le jour de l’élection présidentielle américaine, en novembre. Je mangeais au restaurant avec Adam, le patron avait installé des écrans partout dans la salle pour que les clients puissent suivre l’annonce des résultats, et je me souviens la façon dont la salle s’était vidée, comment les sourires s’étaient effacés sur les visages.

J’étais arrivé vers sept heures du soir et tout le monde était certain de la victoire de Clinton. Et puis progressivement les résultats s’étaient affiché sur les écrans et le silence avait saturé tout l’espace du restaurant ( et n’importe quelle personne qui connait New York sait que le silence n’est pas une chose habituelle dans cette ville ).

J’ai lu il y a une semaine à peine le témoignage d’un homme qui a survécu au crash d’un avion. Il racontait que quand l’avion chutait depuis le ciel vers le sol à une vitesse à peine imaginable pour un corps, personne ne parlait ou criait, personne ne pleurait, mais au contraire il y avait dans la cabine de l’avion le silence le plus profond que cet homme ait jamais entendu. C’est le même silence qui avait rempli la salle du restaurant le soir de la victoire de Trump.

Pourtant en France les choses sont différentes. La gauche a été forte pendant la campagne présidentielle. La gauche, que ce soit celle de Hamon ou celle de Mélenchon, a été forte parce qu’elle a refusé de parler le langage de la droite et de l’extrême droite. Pendant la campagne on n’a presque pas entendu parler d’islamisme comme ils disent, ou de sécurité, ou de guerre. Le Pen a essayé d’imposer ces sujets mais elle n’a pas réussi, elle parlait toute seule. La grande défaite de la gauche c’est quand elle répond a la droite.

Je suis troublé par exemple aux Etats Unis de voir que les journaux progressistes passent leur temps a parler de Trump, à tenter de prouver qu’il a tort. Pourquoi montrer qu’il se trompe et qu’il ne dit pas la vérité, alors que tout le monde le sait déjà ?

Le problème, surtout, c’est que quand la gauche répond a la droite elle s’enferme dans les problèmes que la droite choisit, au lieu de poser ses propres problèmes, d’inventer son propre langage. En répondant a la droite, la gauche légitime les problèmes posés par la droite. Elle ratifie ses questions comme des questions dont il est possible de parler.

J’ai toujours pensé au contraire que la démocratie devrait consister a fermer certains débats autant qu’à en ouvrir – à rendre certaines questions impossibles.

La démocratie, que la gauche doit incarner, devrait consister a dire : Il y a des questions auxquelles je ne répondrai pas, car y répondre, même d’une manière critique, c’est les rendre légitimes. « L’islam est il un risque ? » ne doit pas être une question, car répondre a cette question même en disant que non c’est faire exister cette question. Deux femmes devraient elles avoir le droit d’élever un enfant ensemble ne doit pas être une question non plus.

Il faudrait remettre le silence au coeur de la politique contemporaine – un autre type de silence que celui dont je parlais avant – et dire : je ne répondrai pas a telle ou telle question, car elle ne me parait pas acceptable. La droite peut en parler mais je ne lui répondrai pas.

La gauche d’Hamon ou de Poutou ou de Mélenchon a été puissante pendant cette campagne de 2017 car quand Le Pen insultait les musulmans ou les femmes ils ne lui ont pas répondu. Ils ont posé leurs propres problèmes : le revenu universel, les retraites, les violences policières, l’immunité parlementaire et l’absence d’immunité ouvrière.

C’est grâce a cette capacité de la gauche en France a être forte parfois que Le Pen a perdu une fois de plus l’élection et que j’ai pu célébrer sa défaite dans le West village avec Tash, Maaza et Zadie ( même si Macron m’inquiète, inutile de le préciser ).

Lecture : Alexievicth, encore.

Un jour, il faudra décider si je pars ou si je reste dans cette ville.

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Avec Tash et Zadie dans le West village de New York

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My Father’s Country

Article published in the New York Times ( long version )

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Last month, the face of Marine Le Pen appeared on my computer screen. The headline under the picture read, “Marine Le Pen in Round Two.” The leader of France’s far-right National Front had advanced to a runoff vote in the presidential election. I immediately thought of my father, several hundred miles away. I imagined him bursting with joy in front of the TV — the same joy he felt in 2002 when Jean-Marie Le Pen, the previous leader of the National Front made it to the second round. I remembered my father shouting, “We’re going to win!” with tears in his eyes.

I grew up in Hallencourt, a tiny village in Northern France where, until the 1980s, nearly everyone worked for the same factory. By the time I was born, in the 1990s, after several waves of layoffs, most of the people around me were out of work and had to survive as best they could on welfare. My father left school at 14, as did his father before him. He worked for 10 years at the factory. He never got a chance to be laid off: One day at work, a storage container fell on him and crushed his back, leaving him bedridden, on morphine for the pain.

I knew the feeling of being hungry before I knew how to read. From the time I was 5 my father would order me to go knock on the door of one of my aunts, who lived down the street, and ask if she could spare some pasta or bread for our table. I was sent because he knew it was easier to pity a child than an adult. Every year the amount of his workers’ compensation decreased. I have four siblings, and in the end, my father couldn’t feed a family of seven. My mother didn’t work; my father said a woman’s place was in the home.

At 18, thanks to a series of lucky breaks and miracles, I became a student of philosophy in Paris, at a college considered one of the most prestigious in France. I was the first in my family to attend university. So far from the world where I’d grown up, living in a little studio on the Place de la République, I decided to write a novel about where I came from. I wanted to bear witness to the poverty and exclusion that were part of our everyday experience. I was struck and troubled by the fact that the life I knew all those years never appeared in books, in newspapers or on TV. Every time I heard someone talk about « France », in the media or even in the street, I knew they weren’t talking about the people I’d grown up with.

Two years later, I finished the book and sent it to a big Paris publisher. Less than two weeks later, he sent a reply: He couldn’t publish my manuscript because the poverty I wrote about hadn’t existed in more than a century; no one would believe the story I had to tell. I read that email several times, choked with rage and despair. The explanation was tragic but simple : the life I’d known, the life that my mother and father still lived while I was writing, was so completely absent from the public discourse that, in the end, those who didn’t live it believed that it didn’t exist.

In the 2000s, when I was growing up, every member of my family voted for Le Pen. My father went into the polling station with my older brothers to make sure they really were voting for the National Front. The mayor and his staff members didn’t say anything when they saw my father doing this. In our village, with its population of only a few hundred, everyone had attended the same school. Everyone saw everyone else at the bakery in the morning or in the cafe at night. No one wanted to pick a fight with my father.

A vote for the National Front was of course a vote tinged with racism and homophobia. My father looked forward to the time when we would “throw out the Arabs and the Jews.” He liked to say that homosexuals deserved the death penalty — looking sternly at me, who already in primary school was attracted to other boys on the playground.

And yet what these elections really meant for my father was a chance to fight his sense of invisibility. My father understood, long before I did, that in the minds of the bourgeoisie — people like the editor who would turn down my book a few years later — our existence didn’t count and wasn’t real.

The writer Pierre Bergounioux has observed that the difference between the powerful and the powerless is not just a matter of wealth or education – No, it is also that the powerful get to exist twice. First they exist as bodies: walking around, eating, making love. But they have another existence too, in the world of representations – in literature, in art, in the media. The powerless are allowed only the life of the body. Their lives don’t show up in books or in political discourse. My father voted against this injustice. Unlike the ruling class, he didn’t have the privilege of voting for a political program. Voting, for him, was a desperate attempt to exist in the eyes of others.

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He had felt abandoned by the political left ever since the 1980s, when it began adopting the language and thinking of the free market. Across Europe, as Didier Eribon pointed out in his book Returning to Reims, left-wing parties no longer spoke of social class, injustice and poverty — of suffering, pain and exhaustion. They talked about modernization, growth and harmony in diversity — of communication, social dialogue and calming tensions. My father understood that this technocratic vocabulary was meant to shut up workers and further the spread of neoliberalism. The left wasn’t fighting for the working class, against the laws of the marketplace; it was trying to manage the lives of the working class from within those laws. The unions had undergone the same transformation: My grandfather was a union man. My father was not.

When he was watching TV and a socialist or a union representative appeared on the screen, my father would call out, “Whatever — left, right, now, they’re all the same.” That “whatever” distilled all of his disappointment in those who, in his mind, should have been standing up for him but weren’t. By contrast, the National Front railed against poor working conditions and unemployment, blaming it all on immigration or the European Union. In the absence of any attempt by the left to discuss his suffering, my father took ahold of the false explanations offered by the far-right.

I don’t know for sure how he voted last month, in the first round of the presidential election, and I don’t know for sure how he will vote on Sunday, in the runoff. He and I almost never speak. Our lives have grown too far apart, and whenever we try to talk on the phone, we are reduced to silence by the pain of having become strangers to each other. Usually we hang up after a minute or two, embarrassed that neither of us can think of anything to say.

But even if I can’t ask him directly, I’m confident he is still voting for the National Front. In his village, Marine Le Pen came out way ahead in the first round of the election. In the European elections, three years ago, almost 55% of the village voted for the far right – and if all those who were eligible had cast their votes, the tally would probably have exceeded 70%.

Today, writers, journalists, and liberals bear the weight of responsibility for the future. Unless they offer a discourse and framework that allow the outcast to feel represented, then these outcasts will turn to whatever populist movement gives them the illusion of being counted. To persuade my family not to vote for Marine Le Pen, it’s not enough to show that she is racist and dangerous: Everyone knows that already. It’s not enough to fight against hate or against her. We have to fight for the powerless, for a language that gives a place to the most invisible people – people like my father.

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Classé dans English, Littérature, Politique

Conversation with Teju Cole

For the launch of « The End of Eddy » in the USA, I will have the great pleasure to talk with Teju Cole at Albertine in New-York, the 25th of April at 7pm.

The event is free and open to the public.

More informations here.

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Classé dans English, Littérature, Parutions, Politique, Roman

‘For my family, a book was a kind of assault’

 

Afew months ago, I found myself in a taxi from the airport in Paris, having returned from Japan, where I had been to promote my first novel, The End of Eddy. We had driven a few kilometres when the driver, a tall man from Ivory Coast, asked me what I did. I can never bring myself to answer that I’m a writer; I’m too afraid of seeming arrogant or of giving the impression that I’m trying to hawk my books. Most of the time, I’ll say I’m a literature student, and that’s how I answered on this occasion. “Oh,” he said, “so that’s the kind of thing that interests you, books?” I said yes. He went on, “You know, myself, I don’t read books. But I can tell you one thing, I’ve noticed that in France, when they give out literary prizes, the Goncourt and all the others, they pretty much only give them to white people who write about white people. Have you noticed? Everything is for white people.”

I nodded in agreement. I learned a long time ago to keep my face expressionless, and I’m sure that the driver could not see the effect that his remark had produced in me. He had stated something so obvious, and yet something I had never been able to articulate quite so clearly: even without reading, even without any contact with books, this man understood that literature and its institutions, the system it was part of, didn’t only know nothing about lives like his, it actively excluded them. His words had taken me abruptly back in time 15 years, to my childhood.

I was born in a small village in the north of France, where up until the beginning of the 1980s a local factory employed almost all the inhabitants. By the time I was born, in the 1990s, after several waves of layoffs, many inhabitants were out of work and doing their best to survive on welfare. My father and mother quit school at the ages of 15 and 16, as had my grandparents before them and as would my younger brother and sister. My father worked at the factory for 10 years, until a weight fell on him and destroyed his back. My mother didn’t work; my father insisted a woman’s place was at home taking care of the children.

Literature was not something we paid any attention to – quite the opposite. On television we would see that literary prizes went mostly to books that did not speak of us, and in any case, just like the taxi driver, we were aware that, prize or no prize, books in general took no interest in our lives. My mother would say it over and over: us, the little folks, no one is interested in us. It was the feeling of being invisible in the eyes of other people that drove her to vote for Marine Le Pen, as did most of my family. My mother would say: she’s the only one who talks about us. The Front National got more than 50% of the vote in the village where I was born, and that vote was above all, beyond racism, beyond anything else, a desperate attempt to exist, to be noticed by others.

As for school itself, that experience had driven my parents out of the education system and denied them access to culture at the age when middle-class children were just beginning their studies. Culture, the education system, books had all given us a feeling of rejection: in return, we rejected them. If culture paid us no attention, we would have our revenge. We despised it. It should never be said that the working classes reject culture, but rather that culture rejects the working classes, who reject it in turn. It should never be said that the working classes are violent, but rather that the working classes suffer from violence on a daily basis, and because of that they reproduce this violence by, for example, voting for the Front National. The domination comes first; those in positions of dominance are always responsible.

I am more aware than some of the violence that literature can represent, because at a certain point in my life, I made use of that violence to hurt the people around me. Thanks to a series of accidents and failures, I made it into a lycée and then to university. I was the first person in my family to do this. During the week I would board at school or stay with friends, so I would only spend weekends with my parents. As soon as I walked into the house, I would sit on the sofa with a book, one that, most of the time, I would only be pretending to read. I wanted to let my family know that I wasn’t like them, that I no longer belonged to the same world as them, and I knew that a book would be the most violent instrument I could use to do that.

Zadie Smith

Today, all I feel is shame when I think back: shame in the face of my brutality and arrogance. But at the time I didn’t think, I was just trying to get away. I was too proud to have escaped from my family’s social circumstances; I was an obnoxious fool. In the evenings, our meals would nearly always end in arguments. I would be speaking and my mother would interrupt: stop talking like a damn book, you’ve got nothing to teach me. She would say this with a mixture of anger, sadness and disgust. I, on the other hand, would hear her remarks as compliments: finally I belonged to the world where people read books.

Rather than saving us, books were what kept us down. A book by Hemingway was much more violent, from our point of view, than a photo of Trump in his enormous gold-covered living room. The photo would have left us dreaming of gold and riches: my mother spent hours looking at pictures of huge houses on the glossy pages of magazines. The Hemingway, by contrast, gave us nothing to dream of: it would have left us feeling defeated.

Are books doomed to reproduce such social barriers? There is one counterexample among my memories. A little while after my trip to Japan, I was invited to give a talk in Oslo about an author I loved. I chose Toni Morrison. When I walked into the room I was struck by the large proportion of black women in the audience. I spoke with many of them after the event: some had read Morrison, others hadn’t – but all of them felt welcomed by her books. They knew that novels such as Jazz or Home were addressed to them – not to them only, but above all to them. Today, authors such as Zadie SmithTa‑Nehisi Coates and a few others work obstinately to invent a more welcoming and more inclusive literature. I don’t mean to suggest that Morrison publishing a book is sufficient to interrupt the reproduction of the social order or social inequality. But at least literature will have done its job; it remains for the politicians to do theirs.

My books are born out of an absence: I began writing because I could not find the world of my childhood anywhere in books. We had not had the good fortune to find our Morrison. This is the literary revolution that is necessary today. As long as a large proportion of books are addressed only to the privileged elite, as long as literature continues to assault people like my mother or the taxi driver, literature can die. I will watch its death with indifference.

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Classé dans English, Littérature, Politique, Roman, Théorie

« Penser dans un monde mauvais » de Geoffroy de Lagasnerie, à paraître dans la collection « Des mots »

Début janvier 2017 paraîtra aux Presses Universitaires de France, dans la collection « Des mots », le livre de Geoffroy de Lagasnerie « Penser dans un monde mauvais ».

  
présentation de l’éditeur :

Parce que nous vivons dans un monde mauvais, tout auteur doit nécessairement se poser la question de savoir comment ne pas être complice, volontairement ou involontairement, des systèmes de pouvoir : qu’est-ce qu’écrire dans une société marquée par la violence, la domination, l’exploitation ? Comment concevoir une pratique de la pensée qui ne contribue pas à la perpétuation de ce qui existe mais qui soit, au contraire, oppositionnelle ? Quels sens ont l’art, la culture et le savoir – et surtout : à quelles conditions ont-ils du sens et de la valeur ?

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Classé dans "Des mots", Emancipation, Littérature, Parutions, Politique, Théorie

Dès qu’il y a violence, il y a silence

Entretien avec Jonathan Daudey pour Un philosophe

Dans Histoire de la violence, vous décrivez le processus d’explication et de responsabilisation de Reda, l’agresseur. L’explication sociologique peut-elle se passer de l’excuse ? Pouvons-nous aller jusqu’à considérer que la culture de l’excuse est anti-scientifique ?

Edouard Louis : Pour moi, la question centrale d’Histoire de la violence n’était pas celle de l’excuse. Bourdieu a déjà répondu à ces questions, on sait que la genèse des actes d’un individu se trouve autre part que dans l’individu, et je ne voulais pas répéter ce qui a déjà été dit – est ce que ce n’est pas le but que devrait se poser tout geste d’écriture, tout travail de création ? Non, ma question était plutôt : que veut dire parler, que veut dire témoigner, que signifie l’acte de dire ce qui a été, de se plaindre, de porter plainte ?

Histoire de la violence commence comme l’histoire d’une rencontre. Deux individus se croisent, une nuit, dans une rue déserte, ils se parlent, se séduisent. Ils décident de monter chez l’un d’eux – en l’occurrence chez moi, puisque je suis l’un des deux personnages. Dans l’appartement, ils se passe quelque chose de très fort entre moi et ce garçon rencontré dans la nuit, Reda, nous faisons l’amour, il me parle de lui, de son passé, de son père, on rit beaucoup, jusqu’au moment où il essaye de me tuer. A ce moment-là, le livre passe en quelque sorte de la passion à la destruction. Dès le lendemain, mes amis me poussent à porter plainte, justement à dire ce que j’ai vécu, à témoigner, et c’est autour de cela que le livre tourne (d’ailleurs, la question du témoignage apparait très longtemps avant la tentative de meurtre dans le livre). Je trouvais que la plainte, qui est si fréquente dans la vie quotidienne, n’était pas assez thématisée en littérature.

La scène où mes amis me poussent à porter plainte est une des scènes les plus déterminantes du livre. Ils sont là, face à moi, et ils me disent « Tu dois porter plainte », « tu dois porter plainte », et moi je ne veux pas, parce que ce moment-là je me dis que j’ai réussi à fuir cette situation où quelqu’un essayait de me tuer, j’ai réussi à fuir l’espace minuscule de cette chambre où Reda a essayé de m’étrangler, alors je n’ai pas envie de revivre ce moment encore et encore à travers la parole, devant des juges, des médecins, ou des policiers racistes (le racisme d’état et de l’institution policière est aussi présent dans chaque page du roman).

Pouvez-vous en dire plus ?

C’est un problème que pose la plainte et le témoignage en général : pourquoi une personne qui a souffert est-elle astreinte par le monde social, par les autres, à dire sa souffrance. Comme si les personnes frappées par la violence devaient toujours souffrir deux fois : d’abord par le corps, et ensuite par le langage. Par le corps au moment où la violence les frappe, et par le langage au moment où le monde les pousse à raconter, encore et encore. Dans ma vie j’ai rencontré des gens encore plus dévastés par l’injonction à dire la violence que par la violence elle-même. En même temps, j’ai bien conscience du fait que la plainte est un progrès important, qu’elle est une conquête, en partie du mouvement féministe d’ailleurs. Il y a beaucoup de pays, comme la Russie ou l’Iran, dans lesquels si vous êtes une femme, ou si vous êtes homosexuel-le ou considéré comme étranger, vous n’avez pas la possibilité de porter plainte, vous n’avez nulle part pour porter vos plaintes, personne ne sera là pour vous écouter, car l’état et les Institutions seront du côté des agresseurs. Le livre explore cette contradiction : d’une part la nécessité de témoigner, et de l’autre ce constat de la double souffrance du témoignage. Ce qui est étrange avec la plainte et l’état, c’est qu’ils vous ramènent à votre expérience vécue, ils vous y réduisent. Pourquoi la personne agressée est-elle celle qui doit raconter cette violence ? Vous voyez ce que je veux dire ? Je dis dans un chapitre du livre « cette histoire que je ne voulais pas être mon histoire ». Pourquoi, si je suis violé, est ce que je ne peux pas, par exemple, tout vous écrire et vous demander d’aller témoigner à ma place ? Pourquoi est-ce que je dois vivre la violence par les mots après l’avoir vécu dans mon corps ? Pourquoi la justice et l’état sont si peu inventifs ? Ce sont des questions qui peuvent sembler folles parce que le pouvoir fait en sorte qu’elles ne soient pas posables. Geoffroy de Lagasnerie réfléchit aussi à tout ça, d’un point de vue philosophique, dans son livre Juger.

Oui, d’autant plus que quand vous portez plainte, la police ou les médecins interprètent ce que vous leur dites, et ils déforment le témoignage, ce que vous dites est aussitôt transformé…

Exactement. C’est un autre enjeu du livre : aussitôt que quelqu’un essaye de dire quelque chose, ses mots sont pris dans les mots des autres. Ils sont capturés, interprétés, déformés. Toute la construction littéraire d’Histoire de la violence reflète cette problématique : puisque que la narratrice principale du livre, c’est ma sœur. C’est un livre autobiographique, mais je n’en suis pas le narrateur. Dans le roman, je suis dans une chambre et j’entends ma sœur dans la pièce d’à-côté raconter à son mari ce que j’ai vécu – la rencontre, l’agression, la plainte. Et ce qu’elle dit ne correspond pas à ce que j’ai vécu, il y un écart entre ce que je lui ai dit et ce qu’elle dit que je lui ai dit. Quand j’ai publié Eddy Bellegueule, je disais que c’était un roman sur le manière dont le langage des autres nous définit, nous construit une identité, par exemple avec l’injure: «Tu n’es qu’un pédé, tu n’es qu’une femme, sale juif, sale arabe». Dans Histoire de la violence, ma sœuf parle de moi, de ce que je suis, mais ses mots ne me constituent pas, ne correspondent pas à mon expérience, au contraire, il y a un décalage, une distance immense entre ce qu’elle dit de moi et ce que je suis réellement. Et la souffrance nait de là, de cet écart, de cet échec du langage.

Cet échec se reproduit avec la police quand je porte plainte : je leur parle de l’agression, et comme le garçon qui m’a agressé a des origines algériennes, ils interprètent ce que je leur dit comme la preuve que les Non-blancs sont dangereux, ils répètent avec un sourire triomphant « Ah c’est un Arabe » (et chaque ligne du livre vise à pulvériser cette interprétation raciste de la police, je n’aurais jamais pu l’écrire sans ma volonté enragée de me venger de ce racisme). Puis la procédure continue et la police me dit : « Alors cette personne qui vous a agressé va aller en prison », et ils ne me demandent pas ce que j’en pense, ils ne demandent pas si je suis d’accord pour que ma propre histoire serve à produire cet effet violent, l’emprisonnement.

Georges Didi-Huberman a écrit un livre magnifique, Peuples en larmes, peuples en armes, où il parle des larmes comme d’une force politique, comme une manière de porter une plainte, de délivrer un message au monde. Ce qui m’intéresse dans Histoire de la violence, c’est de montrer comment, justement, même nos larmes peuvent nous être volées. Vous allez devant la justice, vous allez au tribunal pour y porter vos larmes, et la justice en fait ce qu’elle en veut, elle peut s’en servir pour produire encore plus de violence : du racisme, de la répression, de l’emprisonnement, etc. De ce point de vue, il est bizarre d’utiliser l’expression « rendre la justice », il est bizarre d’associer la justice au verbe rendre, car la justice ne rend rien, elle prend. Ce vol des larmes, on en retrouve un cas exemplaire, à un autre niveau, après les attentats du onze septembre au Etats unis, où beaucoup d’américains étaient traumatisés, bouleversés par la violence, et où l’administration américaine s’est emparée de ces larmes pour justifier la guerre en Afghanistan.

« La violence n’est pas un accident de nos systèmes, elle en est la fondation », écrit Slavoj Zizek. Souscrivez-vous à cette phrase ?

Oui, c’est très juste. Il y aussi chez Michel Foucault cette intuition que la violence est au fondement de tout. Foucault a montré comment, dans une société, toute affirmation, toute création, toute invention d’une catégorie sociale rime avec la violence. La société a créé la raison, l’idée même de la raison en excluant les fous, voire en les détruisant et en les mettant à mort. Le monde dans lequel nous vivons a défini ce qu’était une sexualité « normale », en excluant les hérésies sexuelles, en brulant ou en pendant les homosexuels. La société française s’est inventée et continue à se définir perpétuellement par un dedans et un dehors, des inclus et des exclus, des citoyens français qui peuvent vivre sur le territoire français et des foules qui peuvent mourir dans la Méditerranée puisque la France ne veut pas d’eux. La violence, chez Foucault, est là, tapie dans chaque relation, chaque respiration, dans toute affirmation d’un « Je suis », je suis français, je suis doté d’une sexualité normale, je pense donc je suis.

Cette violence qui est au fondement du monde dans lequel nous vivons et donc de ce que nous sommes est la matière de mon écriture. Mais de fait, quand je parle de violence, je me focalise moins sur les logiques de l’exclusion, que celles de la persécution. Dans mon premier roman, on peut dire qu’Eddy Bellegueule est un enfant exclu, mais il est avant tout persécuté : par les deux garçons qui viennent le frapper tous les jours dans le même couloir, par ses parents qui l’incitent sans cesse à s’expliquer sur ce qu’il est :  pourquoi il est si différent des autres enfants, pourquoi il n’est pas assez masculin, pourquoi il ramène la honte sur sa famille à cause de tout ça ? Il en va de même pour la plainte dans Histoire de la violence, qui vous met dans une situation où vous êtes constamment convoqué, par la police, par le juge, par les médecins. Le père de Reda aussi, quand je raconte sa vie très difficile dans un foyer Sonacotra, n’est pas d’abord quelqu’un d’exclu mais d’abord quelqu’un de persécuté par le pouvoir, par le racisme etc. Quand j’écris, j’essaye d’opérer ce glissement d’une problématique de l’exclusion vers une problématique de la persécution – ce qui ne veut pas dire qu’il n’y a pas d’exclusion, mais que la persécution peut nous permettre de comprendre la violence d’une manière différente.

Dans En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule, vous écrivez « Il accumulait la haine en silence » et « comme un enfant qui reproduit l’état dans lequel il voit ses parents, sans savoir pourquoi ». Peut-on dire que vous définissez l’habitus sociologique comme une accumulation en silence qui se produit par une reproduction irréfléchie ?

Le silence est une dimension fondamentale de nos vies. Alors oui, je crois que nous accumulons beaucoup de ce qui nous entoure, de ce qui n’est pas nous, sans nous en rendre compte. Dès qu’il y a violence, il y a silence. J’ai remarqué que chaque fois qu’un écrivain consacrait son œuvre à écrire la vie des dominés, des persécutés, comme le font Toni Morrison, Annie Ernaux ou Ta Nehisi Coates, en racontant la vie des Noirs aux états Unis ou des classes populaires en France, il se heurtait au reproche de la victimisation. Ce mot, depuis des décennies, oriente une partie de la critique littéraire ou de l’analyse sociologique. Qu’est-ce qu’il veut dire ? Justement qu’il n’y a pas assez de silence, que l’on parle trop des victimes, que l’on dit trop fort les logiques qui peuvent faire de nous des victimes à un moment de nos vies (car bien sûr on n’est jamais seulement et pour toujours victime). Or, si on regarde Clara, la sœur dans Histoire de la violence, elle parle de sa vie très dure, faite d’ennui et de travaux éprouvants dans un petit village du Nord. Pourtant quand elle décrit cela, elle ajoute toujours, juste après : « Mais bon, je n’ai pas à me plaindre ». Elle dit qu’elle n’a pas à se plaindre, alors qu’elle a des raisons objectives de le faire – comme si la plainte était trop lourde à porter, justement à cause de la double souffrance du témoignage, et comme si elle connaissait les sanctions sociales auxquelles elle s’exposait en se plaignant.

Toni Morrison

Dès lors, il existe deux visions irréconciliables du monde : celle qui consiste à dire que les individus se plaignent trop, qu’ils se disent trop victimes, qu’il faudrait qu’ils se taisent un peu, qu’ils ne parlent pas des victimes que le monde social produit sous peine de faire de la « victimisation ». Et l’autre position, qui affirme qu’étant donnée la masse globale de violence dans le monde, la misogynie, l’homophobie, le racisme, la question de départ qu’il faudrait se poser est la question opposée : pourquoi se plaint-on si peu ? Pourquoi entend-t-on si peu de gens dire « j’ai été victime de la violence » ? Pourquoi est-ce que c’est si difficile ? C’est une question qui a été très importante dans l’histoire du féminisme, par exemple sur la question du viol. Ces deux visions sont absolument, irrémédiablement opposées. La vision selon laquelle la victimisation est un problème a toujours été une idée conservatrice. La vision progressiste est de comprendre pourquoi il y a tant de silence comme vous le disiez, pourquoi il est aussi difficile de se constituer comme victime.

Dans ses cours de sociologie générale au Collège de France, Bourdieu professe la chose suivante : « L’une des ruses de la raison sociale, c’est que le monde social vous envoie de gaieté là où il veut que vous alliez, et vous ne voudriez aller pour rien au monde ailleurs qu’à l’endroit où on veut vous envoyer. C’est l’amor fati que j’ai décrit plusieurs fois. Pour faire comprendre, je dirais que la plupart des expériences biographiques sont de ce type. La plupart du temps, nous allons là où le monde social nous aurait envoyés de toutes façons, mais nous y allons contents. C’est ce qu’on appelle la vocation. Il y a évidemment des exceptions, et elles sont très importantes : il suffit qu’il y en ait une seule pour que cela change tout – c’est la liberté ». Peut-on placer votre travail sociologique et littéraire sous l’égide de cette phrase ?

Oui, je l’ai beaucoup dit mais je crois, comme Deleuze, qu’une exception individuelle, une fuite même à l’échelle d’un individu, peut faire fuir le système. J’ai souvent cité cet exemple : quand, au XXème siècle, des millions et des millions de Noirs ont fui les états du Sud des Etats Unis pour échapper à la ségrégation raciale, ces départs étaient des départs individuels, des départs d’individus ou de familles isolées, qui, agrégés, ont produit une transformation radicale des Etats Unis. On pourrait dire d’une certaine manière que chaque fuite individuelle produisait d’autres fuites individuelles, qui proliféraient, qui proliféraient à n’en plus finir, qui faisaient littéralement fuir les Etats du Sud, car chaque acte de fuite rendait la fuite pensable, un individu qui fuyait faisait exister la fuite comme un possible dans la tête des autres, comme une espèce de modèle imitable. Il n’y a pas d’acte, même le plus singulier, même le plus isolé, qui n’ait une portée collective. En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule et Histoire de la violence sont deux histoires de fuite, Dominique Conil l’avait fait remarquer dans Médiapart, et bien sûr, ce sont des livres qui appellent à la fuite.

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Classé dans Bourdieu, Entretiens, Littérature, Politique, Roman, Théorie