Following up on last week’s post about the Festival of New French Writing that took place in NY last month, today we have the second of JK Fowler’s write-ups and interviews, this time on Pascal Bruckner.
According to the Festival’s website, “Pascal Bruckner belongs to that venerable lineage of French philosophers and essayists who, for centuries, have cast an ironic and always intelligent critical glance on the weaknesses and excesses of their society.” His books include: The Tears of the White Man, The Temptation of Innocence, Perpetual Euphoria: On the Duty to Be Happy, and The Tyranny of Guilt.
Here’s a bit about the panel that Bruckner was on with Adam Gopnik and Mark Lilla:
Religious flagellation is to be the topic of the panel’s discussion. The heavy burdens of guilt, the revisitation of times long-gone must necessarily be stopped. The spirit of critical examination so widely employed throughout Western societies a gift of prison-like fortitude to be shared with other cultures around the world. Selective hypermnesia, the focusing-in on past events selective towards the dark, selective towards the guilt-invoking. [. . .]
How is it, Bruckner asks, such a de-Christianized society such as France continues to live by very Christian ideals? Through countless bloody religion-driven wars, through the struggles between the monarchy and the Church, through the beheading of large numbers of priests, the anti-clerical stance against priests, nuns, the pope, through all of this and more the values of the Christian tradition have remained, manifesting themselves daily through unexpected avenues.
To Lilla, God is invoked in America with few Christian values encased within. Gopnik states that while this may be true, religion is seen as deeply important in American politics but asks why and how deep it actually goes. Lilla explains that while people may believe, it amazes him the extent to which people will believe in very simple things. The result: the intellectual life of American religion is vapid, a statement which is only emboldened by walking into any of the countless religious-material stores in American malls. Religion emerges then as window dressing in the American political realm. And how strange this all is, all three contemplate, considering that historically deeply religious confrontations would become extremely violent whereas today, confrontations are kept within the realm of the political, rarely gaining foot outside of the smoothly-contoured halls of plastic political rhetoric. We encounter anxiety today over the prospect of living without God while never free of God, a paradox which is not lost on the audience.
Bruckner explains that the religious experience in Europe and America seems very different, the latter being more a venue for the creation and nurturing of a particular collective life. As the constitutional monarchy rests within the collective subconscious of the British, the constitution of religion leaks into the American mind through the appeased experience of the faith. [. . .]
The event ends on a discussion of the schizophrenic nature of French society: on the one hand gauged as the most pessimistic country in the world and on the other, possessed of one of the fastest reproducing populations globally. It is to the children that the future which the elders have lost is entrusted.
You can read Fowler’s entire write-up here.
He also interviewed Bruckner, and here are a few interesting bits:
JK: Atiq Rahimi and Russell Banks were talking yesterday about how, in their late teens, they travelled to and through different cultures and saw different modes of seeing life, of operating. So there is something to be said about shaking one from the norm.
PB: Yes, I think that the worst thing that can happen to a human being is to be locked into its village. That’s why the life in the countryside was so dull. You were condemned to the small succor of your family, your folks. So you had to reproduce a destiny of your ancestors and this is why big cities have been created: to allow men and women to forge their own destinies without being pre-determined by the purse or the social class and that’s all the movement of modernity. You are not doomed to reproduce what your ancestors have done. The son will not be like his father, the daughter will not be like her mother. She can invent something new. I think that is the best message of modernity, that’s what we have to preserve. Whatever the flows of our modern times are the idea is that you can create something new out of nothing and that the race and the social class . . .
JK: But nothing emerges out of nothing . . .
PB: Not out of nothing but you can create something new, you can deviate from the trodden path. At least that’s the dream many have. So at the end of our life we can always wonder, did I really do something new?
JK: But then it is so often the case that we wake up later in life and realize that we have repeated many of the same mistakes of our parents, isn’t it?
PB: Absolutely. That’s why Sigmund Freud was invented [laughter] in order to say that we must free ourselves from the burden of neurosis. Yes, it is a teenage rebellion. You rebel against your parents in order to reproduce later on the same mistakes as they did with you. You produce them with your own kids.
JK: So how can one not feel trapped? Because there is that feeling if you start to see these things and you start to realize that, “Wow, I am doing the exactly the same things I said I would never do.”
PB: Yes, I know but I think the fact that you are aware of it is a way to go far from it maybe but you know, you do not always reproduce the family fatalities.
JK: Yes, it is repetition with difference.
PB: Yes, repetition with difference.
JK: So we have this credit boom in the 70s in the States at least, the goal of which is to give people immediate satisfaction. The reality is that I am not sure how much satisfaction people actually received from the experience and when we start talking about homes and ownership of property . . .
PB: Yes, we have the subprime crisis. Yes, this is the interesting paradox. Well, firstly the economic system cannot be based on satisfaction. It’s based on un-satisfaction. Suppose you are satisfied with your car, you are satisfied with your house, you stop buying things and so the industry collapses. So the trick and it’s quite a trick of genius, is to appease your hunger but also to relaunch it or…
JK: Breed new desires.
PB: Breed new desires, yes. So you have to avoid the double experience of frustration and society.
JK: And this is where advertising comes in.
PB: Yes, advertising, marketing. Because the worst thing would for people to be satisfied and this would be very sad. There would be nothing left to desire. And of course the other side of this movement is that as Capitalism lowers the wages without wanting to frustrate people they invented this credit system of sub-primes in order to make every American an owner of his house which ended in dispossessing so many of their own habitat.
JK: Right. But they had it for a few years [laughter].
PB: Yes, which Europe has avoided. The rules for credit in Europe are more strict.
JK: In talking about happiness, again we have this strange thing where the people in France and the United States consume the highest amounts of anti-depressants in the world and yet regularly preach happiness.
PB: I know, I know. I don’t know about in the United States but in France we consume a lot of anti-depressants. I think we have an art of life which goes back to the Middle Ages and we shouldn’t so that but the new thing about happiness which has changed…it’s not only related to consumerism which would be too simple. We all know that buying a car, buying a house cannot bring happiness. But what changed in the sixties is that the obstacles between me and my happiness have disappeared. There’s no more religion telling us that we must suffer and to go through pains to gain our salvation and there are no more social classes prohibiting us from being happy. So the only obstacle between me and my happiness is myself. So being the main obstacle, I must work on my own soul, on my own spirit and this is where a huge market of happiness enters which is one of the biggest markets of today. It can be found in chemistry, medicine, surgery, religions, it’s a huge array of possibilities which are given to us in order to make us happy.
So what has changed in our conception of happiness? It used to be formally related to something maybe a little silly. You know it was ignorance and bliss. You were ignorant so you could be happy with almost anything but today happiness has become a major stake in the construction of your self. You construct your happiness as you construct a house and you have to work on it. It is a daily job and that’s why the people that try to be happy look so unhappy because you know they do not have one moment of oblivion. It’s a constant concern. And this is quite visible in two domains which are sexuality and health. Health is obvious. You know if you want to be healthy people you have to start very young and for one simple reason that life is a mortal disease because death will be the end, whatever you do. So that’s why so many people consume so many drugs, care so much about their food, stop smoking, do sport and work out because they want to preserve this capital of health which is, no matter what we do, vanishing day after day because we are doomed to disappear one day. And so the cult of happiness turns into a huge concern which to my opinion is exactly contrary to what happiness should be: a paradise of enchantment. You’re happy when you leave your concerns to the side and when you experience a pure moment of joy with friends. So happiness has become like the myth of Sisyphus, an unending job. You are never done with it. Go back to your quest for happiness. And so we reproduce in secular societies exactly the same kind of commandments that religious societies had before. We are doomed to be free, we are doomed to be happy, we have no way to escape it.
You can read the entire interview here.
As I mentioned earlier, I participated in the Festival of New French Writing that took place in NYC a couple weeks back. It was a great festival, and I had every intention of writing up most of the panels . . . but, well.
Thankfully, freelance writer and audio engineer JK Fowler1 interviewed a couple of the French writers and put together some nice write-ups about two of the panels. These are available in full over at The Mantle, but JK offered to let us run long excerpts here as well. I thought I’d put these up in two posts so those who couldn’t attend could get a sense of the festival.
First up is the panel with Atiq Rahimi and Russell Banks, moderated Lila Azam Zanganeh. Most everyone knows of Russell Banks, but here’s a bit of info on Rahimi:
French-Afghan writer and filmmaker, Atiq Rahimi fled Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion and relocated to France. After studying at the Sorbonne, he joined a production company and made several documentaries for French television. He began writing in the late 1990s, with his first novel, Earth and Ashes (Other Press), written in Persian, becoming an instant bestseller in Europe and South America. The film version of Rahimi’s book has won 25 awards, including the Prix du Regard vers l’Avenir at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. In 2008, Rahimi won the Prix Goncourt for Syngué Sabour (translated into English as The Patience Stone (Other Press)), his fourth book but first written in French. Rahimi returned to his native Afghanistan in 2002. As Senior Creative Advisor for that nation’s largest media group, Moby Group, he developed programs and genres for its various media outlets, and helped develop and train a new generation of Afghan filmmakers and directors. Rahimi is currently in pre-production of the film version of Syngué Sabour, which he will direct from his screenplay.
This was a pretty good panel—Rahimi has a very interesting life history, and Banks is pretty accustomed to presenting to crowds—but the most interesting part of the panel (in my opinion) was when a woman in the audience asked the two writers about writing “the other,” specifically how they construct their female characters. Here’s some of JK’s notes:
What does it mean to be deterritorialized as Deleuze writes of? To write from a different space for Banks, to re-think space-time. In traveling to Jamaica from his New England town at a young age, Banks began to see the world from the outside, noticed its ideologically-driven machinations, his work reflecting this gradual awakening. These deliberate movements, deliberate displacements etched the tales of morality when approaching the voices of the “Other” so present in his works. This search, this going-beyond oneself, the breaking of one’s comfort zone to explore the voice of the “Other” led him to realize our own, as Americans, identity of the exile, as outsiders embedded in a country to whom none of us belong. To Rahimi, this travel of the physical body forced encounters between his self as pre-developed and new logics, new forms of thinking about life. To travel then, to move is to breed an authenticity bred from unease. Zanganeh asks if Rahimi ever fears of being exoticized. In France, says Rahimi, he is Afghan. In Afghanistan, he is French. Forced to exile, he exists within the boundaries of no country.
“To exile or be exiled, upon the edge of the world looking in: this must be the acquired position of the writer.” (Russell Banks, Festival of New French Writing 2011)
To adopt the voice of the “Other” as problematic, Rahimi and Banks take divergent approaches. Banks underlines the importance of respecting difference, that he will not write that which he cannot hear being said to him. Writing, Banks states, “is a visual and auditory process of hallucination.” Through the approach that the semantic landscapes he builds are not reflections of the real world but the world of the possible, Rahimi sees no limits. Led by the question, “Is it true or is it not true?” Rahimi rides the imagination which allows him to move beyond the limits of a structured reality to the realm of the “could-be”.
Following this event, JK interviewed Rahimi for an hour. Here are a few highlight. First, about Afghanistan:
JK: I am interested too in more personal memories that you may have of the Afghanistan from your childhood versus the Afghanistan after the series of invasions. What changes did you see in people’s faces or in the spaces of Afghanistan?
AR: Ah, you know, this is going to be an anecdote but in 1980 I was a student and at this time I worked as a journalist on vacations for a magazine and I went to the North of Afghanistan alone. It was the beginning of war in Afghanistan and I was to make a report on the carbon mine in Afghanistan about the workers in this mine. And one day I had forgotten my camera in a local tea house. One week later, I came back and this guy said, “Oh, Mister!” I was a Mister for them, you know [laughter]. Maybe because of my blue eyes, etc. He told me that I had forgotten my camera here. It was one week later and he gave me my camera back. This explains the mentality of the people. This guy was poor. He was not a rich man because it was a very small tea house in the village and for them a camera was not very cheap and he could have taken it very easily but he wanted to give it to me. This is important for me, you know? But in 2002, after eighteen years of being away from Afghanistan, I went back. The first thing that I noticed was that the walls of each house were very high. The windows were all closed with brick and everybody would watch you with incertitude. Nobody talked with you.
JK: There were issues with trusting one another?
AR: Yes, there was no trust. They couldn’t believe in liberty, they couldn’t believe in those other things that I mentioned before. The second story I will tell you is that two years ago I was in a restaurant in Kabul and I had a sack with two cameras and everything else in it. I set it on the chair, had a drink, ate and 10 minutes later, my sack was gone! [laughter]
JK: A clear indication of the change, huh?
AR: You know, of course this is only anecdotal but for me it explains everything in this country, you know? Why? Because in thirty years of war, everything changed: the mentality and the confidence of people. Everybody had confidence before but no more. When you lose your confidence, you are afraid of everything, you don’t believe in everything, you know and you don’t have any confidence in yourself. And this is the beginning of the destruction of the culture, of identity; when you don’t believe in you, you don’t believe in your country, you don’t believe in your identity. So this was the big change: losing the identity and confidence in oneself. It’s very important and we do not have that now.
And then back to that whole “other”/writing from a woman’s p.o.v. thing:
JK: Now in The Patience Stone the woman is given voice and the man has his voice taken away. I want to ask you something (and I know that you have been asked this before) but do you ever ask yourself, “I wonder how I can give voice to a woman? Is that okay?”
AR: [Laughter] Well, first to give the voice to the woman, we had to paralyze the man [laughter]. This is the unfortunate thing. But in countries like Afghanistan, Iran, and other dictatorships, voice becomes very important. So in Europe or the United States, the question is “to be or not to be?” But in Afghanistan with a dictator, the question becomes, “to say or not to say?” Because the voice does not exist here. You cannot love your life and say things opposite to government opinion. And for me, to give voice to women we had to paralyze this patriarchal right from the beginning. And for this woman, it is very important to talk. As a writer, I know that words are very important. In the beginning it was the verb. I believe that because if you don’t have voice, if you cannot explain everything you do some things to express yourself and take what is bottled inside and let it outside. Why is there all of this violence in Afghanistan? Because we don’t have voice. This is a very human characteristic. When children cannot say things, they become very frustrated. And if we don’t talk we do violent things. To change the combat to debate, this is the voice.
JK: I guess what else I was trying to get at is that a lot of writers are criticized when they take the voice of the “Other”, someone they are not. Did you ever question whether it was okay to use the voice of a woman as a man? I picture the old man with the image of the woman in his mind and I am wondering what the difference is between that and writing in the voice of the woman?
AR: Ah! Well, in the beginning I wanted to be inside this man. I wanted to write about what this man thinks when his wife tells him everything because she is not a good character, Parwaneh. She tells him too much sometimes, you know? She tells him the children are not his, that every time he was not there she was sleeping around and betraying him. Why? Because she cannot express herself and if you do not have access to voice these types of things will happen. So I wanted to think about how, if I was a man and I had to listen to everything like this what it would be like but when I started writing I could not do it. I was possessed by this woman and every time I wrote the woman came inside of me and would enter my head, my heart and tell me that she wanted to talk about herself, not this man [laughter]. And because I don’t really like all the Afghan traditions, it was this woman that I wanted in Afghanistan. To be, to be present.
JK: What was the reception of The Patience Stone in Afghanistan? What did women say?
AR: Yeah, some women liked it very much and thanked me. One woman really did not like it and asked how I could present all Afghan women as prostitutes and all Afghan men as helpless or powerless. Impotent. And in Europe all the time people said they didn’t believe in this Afghan woman because Afghan women cannot be like her. But when you read Madame Bovary do you think to yourself that all French women are like this? Or if I see a film of Scorsese like Taxi Driver, can I say that all taxi drivers are like that? Every time we make our image the stereotype unfortunately. As if by talking about this Afghan woman, I am talking about all Afghan women. No, this is one case. One novel. But this is my hope.
Next up: Pascal Bruckner.
1 JK Fowler is a freelance writer and audio engineer currently living in Brooklyn, NY. He is a writer and audio engineer for The Mantle and maintains a site of flash and short fiction, poetry, and academic papers at JK Fowler.com as well as a compilation of past and in-process works, photography and audio interviews at Roaming Hills.
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