Chinua Achebe says that the English language, when altered, can be used to bear the burden of his African experience. I extrapolate from that and try to put it into painting.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby
Home of the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Company
Tristan Garcia’s novels have a disturbing way of putting the characters’ manière d’être , their singularities, before your eyes. Eerily animated, the characters in Hate: A Romance and the yet-to-be translated Mémoires de la Jungle [Memories of the Jungle] linger with us, not as fictions or formal creations, but as morally significant figures. Particularly in Hate: A Romance, the writing is descriptive (as in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus , the image makes sense, generates meaning); sensitive (it connects us affectively to the characters, imperfect as they may be); and ethical (it displays complex ethical stances irreducible to moral principles).
We may be reminded here of a deep connection between ethics and literature established by the philosophers Cora Diamond and Martha Nussbaum through Henry James. To them, literature offers us an opportunity to engage in a genuine experience through which we devote attention to others and engage in an “adventure of the personality.” An adventure that does not furnish us with truths, but rather leads us to confront an uncertainty, a perceptivedisequilibrium —as opposed to the equilibrium sought in classical moral philosophy focusing on so-called universal notions of duty, choice, and good/evil. They quote a striking passage in the preface to The Princess Casamassima where James argues that, through our attentive reading of George Eliot’s novels, the emotions, the stirred intelligence, and the moral consciousness of her heroes and heroines become our very own adventure. The notion of adventure is significant for James, who, in The Art of the Novel , articulates it as follows: “A human, a personal ‘adventure’ is no a priori, no positive and absolute and inelastic thing, but just a matter of relation and appreciation—a name we conveniently give, after the fact, to any passage, to any situation, that has added the sharp taste of uncertainty to a quickened sense of life.”
Tristan Garcia writes novels of adventure: of the intellect (he extends our concepts) and of the senses (he opens us to experience). He commands us to share the comings and goings of his characters, who often, in fact, are more real than many of the people around us—his characters matter to us, they have moral relevance. The novels are upsetting because they put us in the place of another, and, in doing so, they push the limits of our own understanding. Both philosophers by training, we spoke about these and other matters via email, although we’re both based in Paris, on the occasion of the release of Hate: A Romance in the United States.
Translated from the French by Nicholas Elliott.
Sandra Laugier What brought about your first novel, La Meilleure Part des hommes (Hate: A Romance)?
Tristan Garcia I had a desire to deal with the “nearly contemporary.” Since adolescence I’ve sought refuge in fantasy literature and genre fiction from an art of the novel that I found had become too self-reflexive. I got worried about living in an ivory tower of sparkling fictions cut off from my everyday reality as well as debates on ideas, politics, and current affairs. At the time I started writing the novel, it seemed to me—though I’m not sure I still think this—that the contemporary French universe only existed in “general literature,” through the prism of what is known in France as “autofiction,” a particular blend of memoir and fiction. The term most often refers to a literary presentation of one’s self, beyond reality and falsehood and beyond good and evil, nowadays dealing with a few recurring themes, notably those of family and illness. This is the world of the sad and overly self-conscious liberal individual, who no longer seems to know any experience other than his own and is walled in by what he believes to be the all-powerful subjectivity of his words.
Though I cherished science fiction, fantasy, noir, and adventure, which opened doors to vaster experiences and worlds, it seemed to me that these kinds of literatures were powerless to soothe my annoyance at this universe of atomized, monadic, and self-centered narratives and individuals. So I attempted to write an authentic, “nearly contemporary” novel, both funny and dramatic, borrowing numerous traits from real events, debates, positions, and people, with the intention of building characters that would be like types, not wholly singular (since they are reminiscent of people and attitudes common to an era), but not completely generic (for they possess their own identity, a body, a language, and sometimes an eccentricity that make them more than abstract figures or the mere embodiment of simple ideas, as is often the case with French novels à la Sartre and Malraux).I placed these characters in an intermediary era between past and present, in a limbo of history and the news, somewhere between the ’80s and the ’90s, in the no-man’s-land of my childhood and adolescence, in order to relive a comatose period that hasn’t entered the history books yet, but has already more or less left the pages of our newspapers.
SL So you are not speaking of your generation.
TG Given my age (I was born in 1981), the story’s time frame corresponded to the era that my generation inherited and which I vaguely lived through as a child in the provinces, without participating in it. It was more like the time of my parents’ adult years: the staging of the end of ideologies and the “end of history,” even; the triumph of economic and cultural liberalism; the bitterness of Communism and the Left having been cruelly defeated at century’s end by money, prosperity, the corporation, individual success, hedonism, the stock market, and new technologies.
In the midst of this era we still have trouble defining and which could be thought of as having already ended—and therefore is ready to enter the world of the novel—we find the very peculiar fate of the gay community, which simultaneously experienced the joys of emancipation (of the body and mind); the exhilarating feeling of self-organizing and taking subversive and political party matters into their own hands; and the tragedy of AIDS, the dark back office behind the glittering display window of the time.
We have had firsthand accounts and autobiographical fictions (ranging in France from Hervé Guibert’s to Guillaume Dustan’s) describing the individual and collective heartbreak of this history of politics and sexuality. Yet I believed that we were lacking in something that gave this history a novelistic dimension, allowing for the string of events that befell the small Parisian gay community to find its place in the larger history of France at the end of the millennium, and, in turn, for this larger history to be reflected in the portrait of the microcosm. Since I didn’t belong to the microcosm, I took the risk of depicting it in a novel, thinking that my total lack of legitimacy as an observer or participant in these events which I hadn’t lived through might give me an opportunity to be their novelist, both an empathetic and distanced one. According to some who witnessed the era, my depiction was a success; according to others, it was unseemly, a failure.
To me, a novel is specifically defined as an experience—concerning morality and knowledge—that takes the shape of a story. Like any experience, it runs the risk of having imperfect results, but it must always allow us to know a little more than what we already knew, than what we have personally experimented with in our own life. It is truly a moral adventure. The experience must particularly—and this is the specific power of the novel—give us the means to escape the limits of our morality (individual, familial, national, of class, or species) to adopt that of an Other (the character) who can truly begin to exist there where our own actions end.
SL Could we say that Hate: A Romance is also about the present day?
TG It tries to express where today comes from. I don’t really believe that the novel can grasp the present in and of itself. That tends to belong in the field of journalistic research. For instance, none of the novels written about 9/11, including DeLillo’s Falling Man, convinced me. If you really want to write fiction, to avoid being prisoner of an event that still belongs to the sphere of current events, you have to dig up something from the recent past which has kept a trace of actuality but has also started to slip toward history without having yet become fossilized.
I wrote a novel because, actually, I don’t have so many fixed ideas, whether political or philosophical, about today’s society. If I did, I would have written an essay. I have a vague intuition that part of the rising communitarianism described in the book is linked to a logical form of democracy. By communitarianism, I’m referring to the struggle of particular communities, as opposed to the more general notion of class struggle. In a democracy, to achieve power you have to have a hold over the majority. To counterbalance that, minorities are given a very important role in ideological debates. I have the impression that in the world of ideas one increasingly needs to be wary not to appear as the majority, because the majority is in the realm of numbers, votes. Thus, to assert one’s individual opinions, one needs to present one’s thoughts as representing those of the minority. The emphasis of Western debates—and this is often infernal—on the “politically correct” is born out of this logic of the minority. Even those who have violently criticized communitarianism and a certain empowerment of minorities—blacks, gays, women—and whom, due to mediatic exposure, we saw take on a new political relevance in the ’90s, began so by arguing that “as a white heterosexual male, I am supposed to represent the majority, yet because of all these minorities, I have been excluded and have become myself a minority, a victim of liberal media. So I can once again express myself in intellectual debates and be right.” This is an endless principle of reversal, from the mainstream to the alternative, the dominant to the dominated, which is the fever of Western democracies.
In this novel, I wanted to account for the point at which we can no longer really identify who the majority is in “democratic” debates. In France, we started having discussions about the fact that, currently, the ideology of the majority is antiracist rather than racist.
In the book, this corresponds to the logic of the contrarian intelligence upheld by Leibowitz, the character of the media-friendly philosopher disoriented by his era.
In fact, to disentangle this we would have to be able to scientifically and objectively identify the position of the majority in Western thought—while you can count the number of votes in an election, you cannot count the number of ideas in the public space.
SL Why did you choose the gay community as a subject?
TG Initially I wanted to tell a story focused on the ’80s and their vacuity, à la Bret Easton Ellis, but taking into account what remains of the ’60s and ’70s, and therefore including Leftist characters who had lived through the counterculture and then, with the depressions of the ’80s, had gone lower than a snake’s belly. I was afraid the book would be a little too gloomy, sad, and colorless, and realized that the gay community would be a more interesting, sparkling prism through which every aspect of the era could be dramatized: the discovery of emancipation and joy, the reclaiming of a certain bad aesthetic taste and its transformation into a subversive force, and the disease and death.
SL So with this novel you take an interest in people other than yourself.
TG The novel follows four characters, or rather three male characters and a female “half character,” since Liz, the narrator, never really actively participates, but only recounts the intersecting lives of the other three: Leibowitz, her lover, the philosopher who came out of the far Left’s anti-establishment and then over the years joined up with contemporary conservatism; her friend and colleague Doumé, the fictional founder of the first French gay-rights association, who settles down over time; and William Miller, a slightly unbalanced, young gay man whose confidante is the narrator.
I wanted to write about something far removed from myself, which has nothing to do with my existence, even my nature—I’m too well-behaved, my soul is too well-adapted to the world, in a sense. Autofiction doesn’t interest me, and I’m not very interested in myself either. For a time, it was believed that because people were writing to tell their stories—as if to a psychoanalyst or a confessor—literature was self-expression, first and foremost, and, sometimes, the fictional expression of self: speech, a voice, the voice of the person writing. For me, it is the contrary. Writing is a refined form of empathy through which man extends his ability to be an Other, to feel what someone else feels, to trade his sensibility and voice with others without losing his soul.
A novel is a tool for knowledge, like any other great art: what one seeks to know is something other than oneself. It might be a success or a failure—but that’s the only criterion, at the end of the day. People who experienced the era described in the novel have a right to criticize this work as a finished product, but that doesn’t take anything away from the legitimacy of my attempt to tell the story of a community and an era that is not mine, to try and know it through fiction.
SL The character of William Miller is rather ambiguous.
TG William follows in the path of his politicized elders: he rebels, advocates a blurry form of nihilism; praises barebacking, unprotected sexuality, to be provocative; becomes a well-known figure, a clownlike puppet for television; flies too close to the sun; acts insufferably with everyone; and winds up abandoned by all, disowned by his former friends, with only the narrator at his bedside.
I like characters whose only chance at salvation is to be fictional: they are too much for life and reality. I’m thinking of Don Quixote, the Good Soldier Švejk, The Wise Star in Outlaws of the Marsh, Ignatius Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces … In The Theory of the Novel, Lukács writes that there are characters whose souls are too big for the world that surrounds them, and others whose souls are too narrow. A character in a novel is either too big for a reality too small or too limited for an open reality. I try to produce such souls, such as William, or the talking monkey in my second novel. As a reader, I like characters who would be unbearable in real life, who are sometimes bastards, like William, but who find their redemption in fiction: they may be without virtue or intelligence, very blurry, too coherent, or too stubborn. But they are made for the novel—if the novel succeeds, this is the only place in which they could be loved.
SL Some have recognized real people in the characters …
TG I reject the idea of the roman à clef, according to which, through a magical switch of names, a character is simply equivalent to a person. This is not the case. The character of William Miller borrows certain traits from Guillaume Dustan, a writer and activist who was both an underground cult figure and the object of French media attention in the ’90s, and who has since died tragically. But, for instance, William’s social trajectory is the opposite of Dustan’s. While Dustan, the real person, was the son of a psychoanalyst and was a cultivated man with an extensive academic background, the novel’s Willie comes from the very bottom of the middle class, is rather uncultivated, and, in some aspects, has nothing to do with the real person Guillaume Dustan. He resembles him in profile, but not face on, like an imaginary portrait that borrows from several people of the era through tricks of perspective, without, ultimately, completely resembling any of them. Similarly, the very French character of the philosopher Leibowitz is a collection of attitudes and ideas, as well as small acts of cowardice, common to a generation of European intellectuals who slowly slid from the radical Left to the neoconservative Right.
Each of the characters embodies an individual relationship to our era. All try to understand this era, to position themselves in relation to what is going on, here and now. And all ask themselves, when the circumstances and the times change, What should I do? There are those like William who remains faithful to his position in spite of everything, at the risk of becoming cut off from reality. And others are like Doumé, who distanced himself from the Left as a response to the AIDS crisis and forged alliances with the state and institutions—those he had initially been against—in order to implement preventive policies. Contrary to William’s irresponsible faithfulness, Doumé’s is a responsible betrayal. Then there is the intellectual … Some intellectuals are literally driven mad by their era, like spinning weather vanes they look for which way the wind is blowing, for the direction of history. They’ve lost it, and they wear themselves out by trying to take the opposing view to their era, obsessed by their analysis of the actual, the present, while also trying to free themselves from it.
My characters try to embody ideas, attitudes toward the present embedded in bodies, sick bodies, sexual bodies … Otherwise it would just be a fleshless, tedious volume—that’s the danger. But disease weighs down all these minds looking for meaning, for a truth, it ballasts them, makes them heavy: they return to reality, because they are sick and mortal.
SL Hate: A Romance is not a realist novel in the sense of a work that requires a lot of research, a detailed description of a reality, a social environment, and a historical moment. It is a novel about the real, which is always part imaginary, part history, and part fiction. What part of the novel deals with morals?
TG After years of formalism in literature, during which the novel deconstructed and reconstructed itself, essentially reflecting on the conditions of possibility of narration, voice, characters, temporality, and the structures of genre, it seems to me that once again we have room to create a literature of moral adventure, which is not to be confused with moralizing literature intended to teach us what is good and bad in general.
In the 20th century, the idea of morals became suspect: people spoke of sanctimonious morals; a holier-than-thou approach; categories of good and evil, what should and shouldn’t be done. But if you take morals out of art and, especially, out of literature, the form dries up, it tends toward abstraction, self-reflexiveness … The interesting thing about morals in the novel is the idea of empathy, as opposed to compassion. Compassion consists in pretending to share someone else’s suffering, to suffer together, by patting the victim on the back, like on television shows. I hate compassion as a spectacle: ultimately you suffer alone; we should not pretend to commune in pain—that’s false. However, you can put yourself in the other’s place, you can, through the imagination, suffer what he suffers, come out of yourself, take the other’s place—without being with the Other, but by carrying out the exercise of being what the Other is. Liz, the narrator, and I, as the writer, are trying to be empathetic toward the characters, especially when they’re nasty.
This is the foundation of morals and writing. Morals are always somewhat fictional, and fiction is always somewhat moral. There is no way around it.
SL So you are challenging the trend that literature has nothing to do with morals. In my work in moral philosophy, I initially asked myself what literature has to contribute to moral philosophy: not as lessons, but as raw material, as a given. Yet it is obvious that reading literary works (the classics or others) teaches us something, gives shape to our lives. This is a question of education.
TG Literature is an open moral adventure. Narrative could be the map of a fictional space where both reader and writer could explore, roam through, and transform—if they’re willing to make the effort—their own moral conceptions, which often remain too vast, too blurry in everyday life, and whose theoretical implications are sometimes too narrow, too hard.
SL Your second book is very different.
TG You could say that Hate: A Romance was an attempt to write a novel in another gender, in the voice of a female narrator, about homosexuality, and that Mémoires de la Jungle[Memories of the Jungle] is an attempt to write a novel in the voice of another species. As an experience, it’s probably a stranger one than my first novel. It was a particularly difficult one to write, because I wanted to embrace the subjectivity of a species other than ours, though one that is close to us. I was tired of the human voice, of our species’ discourse and bodies (and especially annoyed by my own human language as a writer). It is a naïve novel (in the sense of a naïve painting, as with Henri Rousseau) about a “poor little chimp,” as he describes himself. I remembered the famous story of that couple in Nevada, Allen and Beatrix Gardner, who adopted a chimpanzee shortly after they had a child and decided to educate both of them together in order to compare the behaviors of the little man and the little chimpanzee. It is said that after several conclusive months, the experiment failed and the chimpanzee, mistreated by his human brother—and, unlike him, unable to speak (chimpanzees don’t have the same articulation of pharynx and larynx that we have)—was taken away from the couple, and then placed in captivity.
I started imagining the opposite: a chimp adopted by a human family, educated with a human brother, but who eventually outstrips the little man by perfectly assimilating and learning the language and, in the end, humiliates his sick brother. Obviously, the idea that a nonhuman great ape could learn to handle more than a few hundred words, arrange them following more or less correct syntax, that he could master the narrative function (even if it was based on lineaments of real experiences), and extend them through thought, was in the realm of science fiction.
SL So it’s a science-fiction book?
TG It only has the framework of science fiction: the novel that takes place within it is an adventure novel with no cutting-edge technology, no prophetic vision of the future, whose sole interest is to hear the narrator, an educated chimpanzee, describe his crossing of the equatorial jungle after a plane accident over the coastline of Cameroon.
The idea I followed from the beginning was this one: to allow the reader to hear the voice of another species, to give him the possibility of adopting—if he accepted—the thought and behavior of a chimpanzee that is not “natural” but acculturated, and who imitates man without ever completely succeeding. In writing this book, I felt like I was in the very situation of my protagonist: trying to imitate a being from another species, but not doing it exactly, and without succeeding in going all the way. For he himself attempts to do as man does, but not completely, without ever succeeding in his undertaking.
From a literary point of view, the work is imbued throughout with the development of an ape’s language, a baroque, pieced-together idiom that expresses the narrator’s strangeness. Philosophically, it is carried by the idea that everyone is trapped in his species as in a world of perceptions, interests, and feelings inherent to each biological apparatus, and that only two capabilities can transcend this and dig a tunnel to another being, from one species to another: language and affection. Language circulates among humans, and on the margins, in the limbo of our humanity, can also pass in a coarse form between man and other primates. The literary challenge of Mémoires de la Jungle is to push the envelope, to dig a more solid tunnel between our brain and that of a poor fictional chimpanzee. As for affection, which is shared by all that lives and feels through the gesture of the caress, through care and a simple cuddle (which is what Doogie always asks for), it is the slim hyphen between us and other living beings, the smallest communication that can be.
Doogie, like Willie in Hate: A Romance, is a character searching for salvation in a godless universe where each being believes he is locked in himself, but where language and feelings still circulate. That is all I’m interested in.
Originally published in
Featuring interviews with Jim Nutt and Gladys Nilsson, Rochelle Feinstein and Justin Lieberman, Rae Armantrout and Ben Lerner, Tristan Garcia and Sandra Laugier, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Jace Clayton and Kevin Martin, Sarah Michelson and Ralph Lemon, and Thom Donovan.
Chinua Achebe says that the English language, when altered, can be used to bear the burden of his African experience. I extrapolate from that and try to put it into painting.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby