To Be Thrown Against the Brick Wall of History: Talking to Nathanaël

How to account for a propulsive four-book span (including a diverse range of additional translation, occasional, and notational projects) of one’s writing — but how especially to do so when one discovers (over and over again) that one has no memory, that one in fact has no other option than pointing towards “the lie of literature” as some supposed “means for remembering”? How most presciently to reconfigure this recent past, precisely when “The present is exactly the paradox of these works”? When I wanted to ask such convoluted, self-cancelling questions, I knew I could pose them to Nathanaël and receive astute, adroit, elegantly recalibrating responses. This present conversation took place by email, over two years of wide-ranging engagement, but focuses primarily on several of Nathanaël’s Nightboat publications: The Sorrow and the Fast of It, Absence Where As (Claude Cahun and the Unopened Book), We Press Ourselves Plainly, and Sisyphus, Outdone. Nathanaël is the author of many books written in English or French, and published in the United States, Québec, and France. Recent works include N’existe (2017, Le Quartanier), Feder: a scenario (2016, Nightboat), and The Middle Notebookes (2015, Nightboat). She lives in Chicago.


ANDY FITCH: Could we start with you describing, in general terms, how these four first Nightboat books fit within your overall published output, and/or fit together as a sequence or sub-series within your broader project? Do they extend a focused line of inquiry? Do they spread horizontally across a set of sometimes overlapping concerns? Do they take on more useful context if we dispense with demarcations of publisher designation, of French- or English-language designation, and place these four books alongside your contemporaneous work in translation, alongside occasional/documentary projects like At Alberta? These four texts definitely refract and reframe each other as one reads through them, but do you think of yourself as working on discrete manuscripts, on a kaleidoscopic corpus?

NATHANAËL: Andy, entering this conversation is, in some respects, like being asked to set my face on fire. Is it useful, I wonder, to even propose a reasoning for the difficulty in it. My first impulse is to aver, with Kawabata Yasunari, who states in a series of autobiographical texts: I don’t like what is referred to as “the past. But I might also be more accurate in affirming, with Ingeborg Bachmann that: “I never say: it was yesterday.” There is in me a violent aversion to what has become such a commonplace: the archive, and the organization into a timeline of some form of antecedence.

But to be more truthful, even in the absence of this possibility, I would have to say that the past, for me, such as it is indistinguishable from the books that write me, is a kind of hole in my memory (the French language says un trou de mémoire which already has rewritten itself in my thinking as un trou d’oubli — a hole of oblivion, or forgetting, redoubling the effect of erasure, and certainly signifying the depth of the problem). That writing could be a form of undoing, rather than a transcription or inscription of a time. In the way that fire, but water too, erases all discernible traces, or transforms them into something else, or several somethings else.

To further explain my antagonism toward the archive, I could refer to a very detailed account I recently read of the numeration of Bachmann’s papers, upon her death, and the impossible-to-resolve matter of rectos and versos of a same page, with different content, some intimate, some literary. The hitherto unpublished (in English) pages excised from Wittgenstein’s notebooks come also to mind, in which his notes regarding work, and his military detail, are interspersed with annotations about masturbating. There was also the stupid, or perhaps stupefying, effort to reconstruct Bachmann’s library, from out of a life lived in several cities, and the movement of books on and off various sets of shelves… First, to be thrown against the brick wall of history is an inevitability; one has trouble imagining such precise ledgering of a writer who wrote herself defiantly against Heidegger and cast an entire literary oeuvre against the postwar period, without imagining the exact same measures being taken of bodies aimed at various forms of liquidation. It would be preferable, wouldn’t it, to let the pages drift down a river? (With apologies to the river). Or in any case, somehow, not to make the coffin so hermetic.

All of which is said with due respect to your questions, which might be excellent questions if only they weren’t asked of me. Even if I am dead-already as some of us are, my skeleton’s flexibility is limited. Nonetheless, the first effort required of me then is the calculus of the four books which as you recognize are an arbitrary measure, and certainly as a collection of books are a complete falsehood upheld only by the fact that they share a publisher. So I imagine this as a mnemonic exercise, and discover that I have no memory, which is a discovery I make over and over again, as I had to do at the Sorbonne a few years ago, when I was asked very earnestly how a book could produce such losses of memory, or even account for them, when the lie of literature is that it is a means for remembering. I won’t argue with the question, but I cannot speak out of any books other than those I have written. It comes down to a question of what is tolerable. And on that occasion the eight pages I read aloud from Carnet de somme were the only eight pages I could stand to give my voice to, without provoking a breakdown I wasn’t too keen either on having nor on exhibiting to the other people present.

If I mention Carnet de somme, it is because while these other books you mention were taking form in English, I was also writing the notebooks of which Somme was to be the third, and which would end in English as The Middle Notebookes (2015), exceeding their time. The period was roughly 2007-2010, but extends to 2014 if one includes the English re-writing and revision of the notebooks, which more or less coincides with the decade on which you have chosen to focus.

The re-doubled effort of this work is in itself a kind of sempiternal hernia, and in any case simultaneity is even more exhausting to account for when it owes everything to the syncope. Writing would otherwise simply not be possible. I have only one body, even as it seems sometimes to de-multiply itself along perpetually unresolvable lines which function somewhat as suturings that are ever being torn apart (another kind of fire). It is during the time you mention that I re-wrote in English my first book-length essay (on Claude Cahun), returned to France for the first time in 21 years of self-declared exile on an invitation from ENS-Lyon, changed dwellings at least five times, adopted a citizenship and a name (even as I reject the fact of countries and am suspicious of nomination), and translated a book from a language I don’t speak. Everything significant here is in what I am not saying and is inside a scream left behind in the belly of an alligator.

Could you also offer some broader context on your relationship with Nightboat throughout the past decade? Could you give some sense of your personal history with the press, including your curation/completion of the translation projects? How have you and Stephen decided on which books to publish or republish? Have you deliberately sent certain manuscripts Stephen’s way? Has he picked these specific texts from among many possibilities? Have external circumstances and vagaries of fate assigned these particular books to this press? What continuities of design have you and/or Nightboat deliberately developed through the selective use of faint fonts, through the way that multiple volumes end precisely on (or quite close to) 100 pages, through other tracings and mirrors and echoes?

As with most significant relationships in one’s life, the beginnings are sometimes left to the mists, and owe as much to accident as they do to a kind of attention one is giving to a thing without even realizing it. That Stephen was the recipient of a lost letter not initially intended for him, and through which we met, that we worked together on a book before Stephen became publisher of Nightboat, and that Nightboat became in a sense a constant port of call for my work in English are all details I don’t give much attention to in the everyday even as they account for so much of what my life is. I haven’t the right kind of memory for reconstructing such narratives with accuracy, and I’m sure Stephen will be a better source here, but the degree to which our working relationship is imbricated in my relationship to my work exceeds any narrative I might make of it.

If The Sorrow was published by Nightboat, it was at Stephen’s persistent invitation. If Absence Where As was re-written — and published — in English, it was largely at Stephen’s behest. And if the opportunity to translate Glissant was presented to me, it was the result of an unremembered remark about the lack of a particular work in English. These are the first works. Since their publication, and with the exception of At Alberta, which fulfilled an anterior promise, I have presented all of my written work in English to Nightboat. What becomes of the books themselves, and what you identify as their consistencies, must come out of the work itself, and a certain element of chance.

It was with Sisyphus, Outdone. that I had the enormous opportunity to collaborate with Mark Addison Smith, who also designed the Guibert, as well as Asclepias and The Middle Notebookes. That we were living a block from one another during the design of Sisyphus is not an anodyne detail, since many of our meetings took place over my dining-room table, with tea, and paper versions to consider. This remains the most enjoyable and dynamic collaboration in book design to date for me, and much of what the book became, architecturally, from out of a number of textual enigmas, is owed to the sustained conversation we were able to have, first the two of us, and then with Stephen as well. As for the Guibert, and other translation projects to come, these conversations, so imbricated in the existing dialogue with Stephen, all benefit from the tremendous privilege of a very deep complicity, but also the understanding that the works are not, in some respects separate from themselves — that the particular translation projects I have chosen to undertake intersect with my own work in a way that isn’t always clear to me though it remains palpable in its urgency.

Finally, because there is so much else to say here, there is an interior temporal sense that Stephen and I share, and which is anachronistic, in that it recognizes that the time of literature cannot be spent. Something most of the rest of commercial publishing, even when it sees itself as independent, is hell bent on compromising.

As we begin to track how these four books sit alongside each other, perhaps as ongoing extensions or iterations of “The Book,” perhaps as discrete, self-contained forms in and of themselves, I find myself recalling one particular term (and its echoes) which might help to describe/depict some such adjacencies. When I think of the “littoral,” I think of Chicago, for sure, of ideally walking but often driving down Lake Shore Drive. When I place the littoral against the “literal,” then the former takes on further significance. But when you distinguish, let’s say, between the littoral and the “lateral” (even while keeping the “liminal” in close proximity), my mind projects an allegory of the littoral as porous threshold, as a blurring of physical boundaries but also a potential reinforcement of conceptual parameters. So, in whatever ways seem useful, could you parse (dividing, restitching as you see fit) the terms “literal,” “littoral,” “lateral,” “liminal,” as these play out either specifically in The Sorrow and the Fast of It or more broadly in your poetics?

Of all the works to which you have convoked me here, this is likely the most difficult one for me to account for, perhaps because, in a sense, it belongs to a prior strain of writing or thinking — perhaps it exhausts something and so to me, is closed, with its various pains sutured into it.

And so, in keeping with this additional difficulty, whatever I might have imagined as littoral will necessarily have transformed itself in the intervening years. What continues to be compelling to me about this aspect of geography, in addition to the particular life forms that inhabit it, is not only its difficulty to define (there is some contention as to how much of the littoral extends both inland and out into the water), but its fragility. One could cite at random any number of endangered coasts, but to preserve this conversation from the manifesto that would result from such enumerations, I will simply point out that the French Atlantic coast alone has lost some 40 to 50 meters of coastline in the past 50 years — this amounts in some instances to the eradication of the littoral, something that the greed, with its fascist overtones, such as it finds its particularly North American expression along the Southeast Atlantic coast of this continent, will certainly continue to transpire here as well (numbers indicate Atlantic coastal erosion rates ranging from half a meter to 18 meters a year in the U.S.), through the loss of irresponsibly handled ecosystems.

What remains a characteristic, if it can be described as such, of the littoral, is walking: and if any one thing remains true in the years since The Sorrow and the Fast of It, it is that the rate of writing is measurable against walking. This particular combinatory, when in the presence of water especially, arrives at something like thought. Perhaps it must have the permanent possibility of rain overhead, or of flooding at its feet.

Well in accordance with its title, perhaps, The Sorrow and the Fast of It seems to move much faster than subsequent projects. The prose offers more conspicuous wordplay, more rhyme, more sprung syntax. The propulsive compression (“There is in the moment before the afterthought already forming”) seems less likely to appear in later Nightboat titles. The slippery elision of “It is the foreignness of the word please in a mouth that closes. In a mouth that masticates. Is the foreignness” differs from the more deliberately choked elided forms to come. The Sorrow and the Fast of It offers mini narrative bursts (“The sister takes an orange stone out of the desert. The mother seduces the thief. I sit in the cubicle laughing. I look up at the ceiling. The ceiling falls in on me”), an occasional absurdist register (“I lead the revolution to the bus stop”). It offers a full-bodied affective sensibility, sex, sensual season-ry. Whereas “the body,” as phrase, might get interrogated in later manuscripts, here we encounter an “I” often undressing in public places. Could you discuss the inclusion of such elements in The Sorrow and the Fast of It, and how they might recur, mutate, revolve, disappear in subsequent publications?

It is a de facto impossibility for me to account with the kind of precision you relate, for the changes you name. And while my tendency is to throw all of everything out the window with the very voice that lays claim to it, in whatever language it is attempting to speak, I cannot pronounce this particular eulogy. And it is despite and against the kind of language my work has reached toward that it has never relinquished narrative, for example. It is as present in The Middle Notebookes in punctual form as it is even in the talks gathered in Asclepias. Certain strains may become subdued from one book to the next, but one cannot ever rely on them to disappear altogether; this is something that rather caught me by surprise when writing Feder, a short novel that will have been published by the time this interview is in print, and that, at moments, retrieves a form of lyricism I’d thought I’d abandoned, and whose register is altogether absurd. Which is just as well because it comes to confirm my suspicion that one is never able to free oneself from abduction, entirely, and if anything it provides opportunity for riposte. Feder, which, if pressed, I might describe as a body without a murder, is perhaps more precise in its auscultations, and disappointingly more aware of exactly what it is autopsying: in other words something it will never be able to name, let alone revive.

Still on the body and its place in this book, one particular sequence, with anaphoric “We scraped away” and related “We”-driven utterances, stood out. Perhaps with the Art Institute of Chicago in mind (flashes of Willem De Kooning’s Excavation), I could read this manifesto-like syntax as compulsively resisting mass-cultural narrative delivery, and/or as The Sorrow lamenting some lived trajectory of an experimental coterie’s cultural marginalization. Personally, I find it pleasing for your prose to tack somewhere between, or with both possibilities in play. But if the considerations I have just outlined simply derive from residual, reductive readerly projection on my part (even as you pursue more self-sustained, self-reflexive forms of attention, examination, affect), could you describe your own preferred poetics of relating with its reader?

To account for a reader would be to presuppose an actual engagement in the act of writing; by actual, I mean its temporal disposition. The only times at which such a figure might be present as an eventuality, albeit briefly, would be when writing a talk intended to be spoken before a group of people (though I have also given talks to empty rooms). There is no such thing as a reader when I write, even as my work has at times reciprocal aspirations, and its castigations are not relegated to a vacuum. A reader seems a figure a work of writing could only ever posit after the existence of a book, not only because the mind (mine) cannot forfeit the work for the sake of an imagined receiver — this would risk entailing forms of politesse or hypocrisy — but to anticipate such a figure would also limit the potential a reader might have, and whose relationship to the work is necessarily predicated on a fairly radical displacement. Which is to say, without entering into a litany of the kind of social critique you might be asking me to name, that whatever is at stake, foremost is the preservation of autonomy. Has not literature already forfeited so much of its autonomy for the sake of expectation (another word for “reader”)? Whether that of a market-place, an industry, an economy, a judge… It has made itself largely obsequious and subservient, and as such too often achieves the general human aspiration to mediocrity, which is its own form of totalitarianism.

To shift social registers then, but with The Sorrow and the Fast of It still before us, could we consider the omnipresence of dogs in this volume dedicated in part to the “beasts” (of course dogs also bookend your Glissant translation)? Again, dogs pick up liminal status (a food cart transmogrifying into dog), as well as literal/lateral/littoral status when accompanied or encountered along bodies of water. But it also just interests me how dogs happen to cluster in this book, and not in others (but horses might). The “(Remains)” section of your next Nightboat book, Absence Where As: (Claude Cahun and the Unopened Book), left me acutely aware of how your prose sticks or saturates on particular terms, topics, in compacted constellations or insistent rhythmic clips. But so could you talk about dogs, and/or about “dogs,” as a driving force across The Sorrow and the Fast of It, perhaps beyond?

In The Middle Notebookes, following a somewhat arbitrary review of horses that appear in literature (whether Bachmann’s dying horse at Hermagor, Kateb Yacine’s smoking horse, Guibert’s horse galloping in the abattoir, or Shklovksy’s march of the horse — knight’s move, in English), the text questions whether we must “see in this animal and the sensibility it invokes, the misfortunate depository of human abjection.” If K. is to die “like a dog,” the horse will be skinned alive. I was going to propose here something of intimacy, but it is an intimacy with its skin turned inside out, in the way of the Sonoran Desert, which appears from out of the midst of human construction (destruction), as an almost prehistoric artifact: a form of savagery that is not meant to be seen, nor ever to sustain human life, and its pronounced asperities are, disquietingly, its greatest vulnerability, with its burnt smell of living and its wanton skies.

One more small topic from The Sorrow and the Fast of It: madness seems a much more literal state in this book (with frequent references to the “I’s” or the other’s madness), and then a more liminal state in the books to come — as, say, your photo, juxtaposed alongside Claude Cahun’s, conjures dread verging on madness. Does “madness,” like “body,” become a hollowed-out term as these books progress? What histories of madness do they trace?

A difficulty with madness is that one seems to want always to diagnose it, according, of course, to a set of arbitrary terms. And yet literature is not diagnosable. That is among the more obnoxious tendencies in criticism, and amounts to the conflation of the author with a text. Cahun has certainly been subjected to her share of it, and why not? It must be easier to diagnose her relationship to her mother (but who is her?) than to engage with the matter of the work. Duras’s work has been endlessly subjected to similar methods, most notably perhaps by Kristeva, or perhaps even more violently, Bachmann, as Der Fall Franza attests. And there is no shortage of contemporary writers who are interested in purveying their so-called madness as a form of (textual) capital, a strain I am particularly disinterested in. Textually speaking, madness is also a botanical matter. La folie’s etymology, not dissimilarly from that of folly in English, has foliar implications. Where it finds its greatest force, is when it falls out of the dictionary into the sea.

Again in terms of how a particular mode of inquiry might start off seeming quite immediate, impulsive, and then might get progressively more articulate, incisive, self-critical across these books, the “I” of Absence Where As finds itself haunted by resemblance to the photo of Cahun, by how these anxieties of antecedence (filiation, photographic impression, literary reflection: “I am the scrap of what precedes me…. I am the aftermath of the history that invented, conceived me, modelled, configured, inverted me”) play out across your corpus. Whereas Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida, say, fixates upon the indexical here-ness of certain photographs, your book posits from the start an asymptotic there-ness. And amid that foregrounded there-ness, how did you arrive at this particular format for the book, with its baroque, Ecce Homo-like anthological opening (passing through citations from your previous projects), and again closing with those elided, ruin-like “Remains”? The liminal arises in part due to such structural elements, in part due to you positioning Cahun as fateful reminder of disjunction, of disappearance, of erasure, even of the unread, unopened book. You lament the artificial boundaries placed between beings and things, beings and words — boundaries “gorged,” you say, on an aggressive “‘no.’” But in what ways that we haven’t yet covered does this book seek to stage, to dilate upon, uncrossable abysses between one text (a photographic portrait, perhaps, a translated text, or a plurality of texts by a single author) and its near double?

Cahun, as is fairly well known by now, had many pseudonyms. The degree to which “Claude Cahun” is a pseudonym is debatable. The importance she gave to this nominal decision exceeds a literary conceit, and becomes indistinguishable from the body. In this does it become a name. One of Cahun’s pseudonyms was M. At the risk of demystifying something that belongs to the book, there was something terribly compelling about the coincidence of the letter m that falls out of fa ille (the word famille — family — minus the letter m spells fa ille, a fault, line) and this pseudonymous choice. What arises then in the sampling of various words and sentences that are gathered into the Remains becomes revelatory of something that could not be anticipated. Perhaps this is its way of thinking. That it arrives at absence is both incidental and, perhaps, another form of evidence. By which I mean that this movement across the text, the investigation into its matter, is not a conceptual operation, but rather a thought process. (The concept functions like a mechanism; the minute it is set into motion it has already stopped thinking; this seems to be one of its appalling seductions).

But what your initial question asks fairly simply is to account for the progression of the writing of a book — developed from an existing essay, over a six-week period, in a month concordant with the month in which the photograph of Cahun was taken. Perhaps it is a simple artifact of the inscription of an apprenticeship. My work was verging on the essay, and this verge met with a timely invitation. The various movements of the work, including the initial accountings of displacement and past correspondences, seemed at the time necessary to arrive at the question of the text. But to be honest, these are the parts of the work I am least comfortable with — especially in English, a language that holds so much shame in pronominal excess, something which is far less ostentatious in French, where the reflexive can be relegated to a single letter and an apostrophe (m’). In English the whole –self must be written out.

How does the uncanny historical doppelganger, which you describe as causing “devastating unrest,” compare to the sense of imposition/mediation/relation brought forth by any photograph, by the name and identity that family may seek to impose upon us, by the imprecise calculus language always makes upon its assumed object, by the idiomatic aporia within any translated text, by the projective lure through which any book draws us into (and, alas, away from) itself, by the experiential blur of any moment (which you characterize as inevitably unbound and misread), by the lie of any being or place (which, you say, cannot exist, for us or anyone else)? And then, perhaps as a stupidly positive inversion of the preceding question, what prevents us from characterizing all such instances of groping approximation as movements towards a more intimate, all-embracing affirmation? Why the pervasive tone of fallenness and failure? Could we in fact find something optimistic in how your books sometimes will abandon their own enervating investigative project — perhaps most strikingly here, with the interruption “Enough of this train of thought,” with the admissions “I no longer see the thing I am looking at; I no longer see the quality of the stare that meets mine. It is no longer clear that this is an encounter…. I am ceasing…to pay attention”?

Perhaps it is quite simply that I find optimism not only tedious, but suspect. Regardless of which one might declare the distinction between optimism and pessimism to be irrelevant, or duplicative, in that it serves itself as much as it serves its assigned contrary. The writing itself (this may be some of what you are touching at) may belie its own misery, by virtue of its having carried itself out. But I do not understand the passages you have isolated as particularly cheerful instances. They tend, for me, to indicate somatic breaches, forms of loss, or dislocation, which also, yes, do open unexpected conduits, and mark moments of disobedience of the text in relation to itself.

Also, before leaving Absence Where As, but now moving towards the architectural configurations in subsequent manuscripts: this book argues that experiences of estrangement within The City (already abstracted) are indissociable from the specific locales in which they transpire, that, in your lovely formulation, such estrangement emerges as a function of the city, as a scaffolding for the body, just as this body offers scaffolding for the book being written. But you seem to differentiate these reflections from the spectacular detachments performed by Baudelairian flânerie or Situationist dérive. Perhaps in my sentimental attachment to those two latter projects, I lose sight of the sharper distinctions you seek to make between their mode of inquiry and your own. Could you clarify your relations to the prose excursions of Baudelaire and the Situationists?

This may prove to be too precise a point, but I might contend that in the city of Absence (and beyond) two aspects of its imaginary distinguish it from both la flânerie and la dérive: those are necessity, and the absence of a crowd, or for that matter, of any other person, despite the persistent reference to encounter which is predicated, as is the imprint of prior bodies, on temporal displacement. If the city is evacuated, it is also under siege — this is true as well of the seven cities in We Press Ourselves Plainly. If la flânerie and la dérive share something of both detachment and the aleatory, there is an injunction in l’égarement that has to do with the collapse of distances: the irremediable proximity of the body to the city, their (tribadic) imbrication in one another. What is undermined by any one apprehension of the city, and its approach, in this instance, is the transformation the argument undergoes when it arrives in English: what begins as égarement (translatable as astrayness or waywardness) comes to English as estrangement, misaligning the versions, and disallowing a single interpretation or reliable antecedent. Regardless, though, estrangement (as well as l’égarement) comes of excessive proximity, not out of alienated detachment. A disappointment, one might say, rather than an ideal.

Returning to how, as the body’s presence seems to recede in these books, the place of architecture seems to solidify, could we bring in We Press Ourselves Plainly by starting with this book’s closing note that “Architecturally, the text offers a form of confinement manifest as a continuous block…from end to end”? We Press Ourselves offers detailed accounts of the Algerian casbah, of rooftops, fascistic hospital spaces, sterile museum spaces. The grainy, potentially desiccating textures of wood, of dust, circulate throughout. The impositions of architecture (the “way a room conforms or disfigures”) again echo rigidities of language (“edifices risen in the way of words”) and its insistent “Pronominal impossibilities.” Could you discuss, however you see fit, this increasing importance of architectural reference (again as literalized, lateralized, littoralized instigation of positionality) across your books?

In an aphorism, Kafka explains that one of the significances of the German word sein is “to be there,” in other words the conjunction of ontology and phenomenological emplacement. This is perhaps something that is made more explicit in L’absence au lieu, with its preoccupation, in French, with le là (the there) and the lieu (place) of the title (the truncated idiomatic phrase au lieu de means instead of), and becomes more demonstrably present in more recent work as the public square — the place of democracy, which is as much the place assigned to the gallows. An impatient coincidence, which is nonetheless present in We Press Ourselves Plainly. In a recent rewriting of this work, in French, I abandoned the post-text, supplanting it with a review of its several iterations (three to date, in two languages): “In this number two, one must hear an indefinite number, which tirelessly recomposes itself, a place that is not limited to the dune, nor the cold in November, in other words a precise geography, far from an idea of contemplation: a broken number.” And later: “There is no point saying the names of months, or of people, because the evidence rests precisely on that which escapes documentation. I am left with the necessity to speak the word photography, which owes its bewilderment to the horse. That is what is left for me of this book whose film is being covered over with a dust of war.”

Here could we pivot towards related spectres of historical violence, here associated with a history of 20th-century destruction, with the more specific claim, from Sisyphus, Outdone., that we still have not yet emerged (“nor may we ever do so”) from a “post war state,” since it is “lexically inscribed in our temporal habits”? Could you expand upon that “post war” state, perhaps in relation to World War II and the Shoah, perhaps without need for any such specific historical reference point?

One might imagine a door through which one passes. And stepping over the threshold, one finds oneself on both sides at once, with or without a door. The discrepancy is in post, the war itself is a form of permanence, and its endurance is the result, at least in part, of a refusal to recognize it. But whatever temporal attitude one takes, it is impossible to account for, or rather, not to account for it. The “post” is also what anchors the war to a place, just as it refuses specificity.

It is hard to imagine, when Benjamin was writing his narrative of Angelus Novus, that he wasn’t carrying traces of Rilke in his thinking: Wer hat uns also umgedreht, daß wir, was wir auch tun, in jener Haltung sind von Einem, welcher fortgeht? (here translated from the French: “Who has turned us around like this, so that whatever we do, we have the countenance always of one who is leaving?”).

More broadly, too, could we discuss how such belatedness plays out both in We Press Ourselves Plainly’s epigrammatic assertions (“Now it is after”; “It is late now and so impossible”; The next thing is always behind me”; “There is always after”), and in structural terms in Sisyphus, Outdone. — which takes its title from We Press Ourselves Plainly’s last line, which emerges in the wake of René Thom’s World War II-era theory of the catastrophal, and which, in its citational formatting, echoes Barthes’s lectures, Barthes’s Lover’s Discourse, perhaps Barthes’s own belatedness to love? Again, Sisyphus, Outdone., with its opening on “Still,” its post-shock reverberant stillnesses, its echoes (for me at least) of Barthes’s fixation on film stills (not just photographs), its formulation of photographic temporality as always after, got me thinking about the extent to which examinations of our relation to photographic images overlap with examinations of our relation to written texts. Here you often don’t show us the photograph you describe, leaving us to reside in your reflections on them. And late into this project, you explicitly compare the present of the photograph and the present of the book. So could we discuss the explicit statements in We Press Ourselves and the formal structures of Sisyphus, placing all this on a continuum of your investigations into possibilities for textual presencing, for a textual present — all perhaps with Thom’s catastrophal theories, his equations with which this book opens, and/or your more generalized evacuation/elaboration/reformulation of preexisting vocabularies, as focal points?

The photograph that ghosts the title spread of We Press Ourselves Plainly, which in many respects functions as a still, is most likely an unpublished news photograph taken at Place de la Concorde during the February 1934 nationalist rally-turned-riot which would leave 15 dead and provide a “founding myth” for the likes of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front National. That demonstration is historically understood as a reaction to several events, including the dismissal by the new Daladier government of the chief of police because of his far-right associations. The demonstration was interpreted by the left as an attempt at a fascist coup d’état. It’s true, it could have been this history or any other. There are resonances here, though, that are taken up by the text, even as they needn’t be made any more explicit than they already are; since the Charonne métro provides a reference replete with Vichy’s implication (through Papon, who, as Chief of Police, instigated the violent police repression of the October 1961 anti-war demonstration) in the Algerian War, its calculated murder and deportation of hundreds of Algerians.

The importance of the photograph is in the horse. And perhaps it is that the whole book (We Press Ourselves Plainly) asks to be read in relation to this image, or asks that the image be treated as a part of itself. The present is exactly the paradox of these works. It is more, perhaps, than the fictions of past and future, what cannot be arrived at.

When I first read your question, my eye substituted extermination for the word examination; what I mean by this is that greater proximity, and a kind of commitment to transparency, does not achieve anything approaching clarity but rather enlarges the scope of (t)error and the dangers associated with upholding a particular version of reality without recognizing it as such. The consensus, which is a form of silencing, is evident in the meticulous decortication of the living corpse.

I often think of aphorisms as examining epistemes of presence, of vision, reading, inherent belatedness, and your elliptical reference to a “Time ill-fitted to the epistolary manner occasioned by it” eloquently synthesizes such concerns. But I’d also like to discuss your non-minimalist style in these latter books — which feel short, in a minor key perhaps, but also maximal, saturated within their own specific scope, replete, overripe even on the most local syntactical level (“In the spent parts it is gathered there”). More generally, the way that these investigations turn upon themselves, eviscerating themselves, or the way, say, that the announced itinerary of We Press Ourselves (“I will go then”) stays forever stuck, or when this book later states “What was merciless was not crudity but inhibition” leaves me wondering about demonstrations, throughout your texts, of what it might mean to press, through language, ourselves plainly (as most vividly represented perhaps in Sisyphus: “myopic spectators with our noses pressed against the glass of our desires, of our trembling intimacies”).

In Prédire n’est pas expliquer, a series of interviews conducted by Émile Noël with René Thom, the following exchange is recorded (I am translating):

ÉN: If there are no points of reference, movement loses its meaning…

RT: And if one provides too many changes of points of reference, one ends up killing movement.

Could it be that the tension you name between the minimal and the maximal (which harbours, as you seem to be suggesting, the succinctness of the maxim) is here somehow articulated? Both loss and murder are foregone even as they are presented as risks whose focal point is movement and its absence (which in absence remains by its having been named). There is adherence to a dramatic (theatrical) constraint in the works under discussion. Each is reducible to a single space, place, name, or preoccupation that provides its impetus and its reach, in keeping with an ancient adherence to something like unity of place, but whose time is promiscuous, and whose parameters are persistently undermined. Perhaps your question says it most closely: the whole effort of this literature is toward correspondence, such as it understands itself to be urgent with the time of its writing, and unachievable with its disclosed destinations.

For one last question on belatedness, you have referred elsewhere to your quite common relation to Albert Camus’s L’Étranger as source of early inspiration. Your allusions to Sisyphus, to plagues, your connections to Algeria, your epigraph from Thom on how knowledge may lead not to survival, but to destruction, evoke for me a constant return to and reworking of existentialist thought. How does that perhaps overly familiar reference point remain so fresh, generative, resonant here, especially regarding the critique of contemporary philosophy outlined late in Sisyphus? Could you say more about what Sisyphus, Outdone. characterizes as philosophy’s failure?

I realize now though that perhaps this self-consciousness was displaced; that it was precisely to have admitted to Camus as having provided such an opening that is in effect much more fragilizing. And the theatre in which this all takes place (the admission and retreat) is entirely of my fabrication, because I would be hard-pressed to situate the reverberations that might take the form of admonishment or ridicule. What where? If there was ever a Canada as a context, it surely wasn’t literary; Chicago is altogether subsequent; and France has persistently, in my imagining, eclipsed any kind of contemporaneity with this movement (breathing and collapse; the lungs, but also a kind of atmospheric pressure) that one tends to identify with living. I name these places because to each is attributed a passport and a name but each is more false than the last as far as placements are concerned. And I have excluded significant itineraries such as Montréal (inscribed on my birth certificate, but which remained foreign to me until into my thirties) and Algeria, as you so rightly mention, which is a kind of sub-tender, unacknowledged in many formal respects, and providing important divergences from whatever construct of “France” was ever imputed to me. Perhaps this has nothing to do with writing. But certainly I continue to recognize in Camus’s work an impulse that is instinctual, and that in myself formulates itself more readily as intuitive: a much-abused and then much-discredited way of thinking about literature, when so much of it now is self-consciously formulated by theory and reflexive antecedent, if not mimicry — most of which is of little interest to me, and produces something very far from whatever I might recognize as writing (écriture) when I encounter it, or it me.

The more I consider the problem of whatever calls itself “existentialism” (a term more readily identifiable to Sartre), the more disabused I am of the term, even if it has often guided if not goaded me. Camus, in any case, concerned himself with the absurd, with a confrontation of meaningless that demands a vital and affirmative engagement — one that rejects murder and despairs at its own promotion en masse by intellectuals for political, and of course personal, gain (Camus is quoted somewhere as having chosen “creation” in order to evade “crime”). One might argue that the intellect, in its imagined severance from the body, is already a participant under certain circumstances in murder, given its propensity to cold calculation and affective remove, and provocative alignment with certain ideological factions. Camus was a writer of the senses, much as was Derrida, and as for myself, I have always been concerned with the emotional aspect of language (its secret), which in the movement of writing can only be termed thought (la pensée) and which is intricated in the body. To speak of Sisyphus, Outdone. in purely philosophical terms would be to elude this important impetus which is precisely incapable of being encapsulated by one philosophical program or another; in this sense, perhaps, is Sisyphus indeed outdone, by his own motions adjoined to variously elusive peripheries.

Still there is something remarkable that has gone largely unaddressed, particularly in Anglophone contexts, and has been only apologetically acknowledged in French criticism as a commonplace of Le mythe de Sisyphe, and that is how much Camus owes to Kuki Shuzo for one of the most significant — and through its de-contextualization, confounding — lines in the book, one that scarcely eludes plagiarism, and that is: Il faut imaginer Sisyphe heureux. These are words taken almost verbatim from a talk given by the Japanese philosopher in 1928 at Pontigny. Kuki had already been much abused by Heidegger in the objectionable “Dialogue with a Japanese Inquirer,” and here once more Kuki’s thinking is perplexingly imported into Camus’s work without so much as an acknowledgement, despite an introductory note in which the author announces his intention to draw on particular (European) figures for thinking through the absurd, not the least of whom was of course Dostoievski, but Jaspers as well, and Nietzsche. Kuki Shuzo, however, is passed under silence, to use a French turn. (It is also, incidentally, through Kuki that Sartre is first apprised of Heideggerian thought — to the extent that it is Heideggerian…)

Philosophy’s failure might be its inability to acknowledge its own pretense; it is certainly, given the above instance, a matter of, if not theft, then of telling lies (on this, Nietzsche has the last word, albeit an unpublished word!). But Philosophy like Poetry (I will give them equal treatment here) is incapable of naming itself; in this does it lack some modesty. In its subjective, ontological zeal, it forgets that subjectivity is as much of a lure as is the (false) objectivity against which it turns; it cannot speak to itself anymore than it can speak of itself. This is the kind of dislocation it is forced to contend with, through the eradication of anteriority and the permanence of belatedness. It is as much a letter written to itself, as it is a voice on the verge of speaking, an evacuated theatre the residual odors of which are caught inside the musty folds of fabric. In other words, and despite certain currents in 20th-century thinking that romanticize ontological responsibility (which amounts discomfitingly at times to the near idealization of genocide (the Sho’ah most prominently, but of various communist dictatorships as well, from Hungary to Cambodia)), it is incapable of the kind of vigilance to which it assigns itself.

In other words philosophy (P) fails at its demonstrations. Sisyphus, Outdone., which I tend to think of as a book of seisms, recuses both exemplarity and generalization through the insistence of the fault line. Its demonstrations are presented to illustrate the very impossibility of a proof, or in any case its slide away from itself into something else, extractable, tendentious, and full of human pretense. The associations with catastrophe are monumental and aggrandized, but as Thom explains, catastrophe’s instances in the everyday are infinitesimal. And its roots are in war, as are its propulsions. It is a cruel calculation, as evinced by the last line of the work (“out of the compound and into the field”), which leaves no doubt as to the matter of circumscription. In this sense, Sisyphus’s ordeal seems almost folkloric, under the open sky and with some measure of freedom of movement (atheism). But none of this can account for the intimate aspect of language. L’Étranger, yes, but even more so, La chute, along with Gide’s Paludes.


Photo of author by Nathaniel Feis.