Layering and Repetition
LR…Layer upon layer on canvas, whether you’re talking about traditional representation with under-painting and building up of darks and lights or …
TB Putting a one-ton rose in a truck…your reference to Jay DeFeo.
LR Yes. A video that I saw in San Francisco, at the Beat show, of them moving that painting out of the studio…
TB So the repetition‒there’s a kind of procedural repetition and it’s very effective, in that the same sentence can be said two times in a row and you don’t get the same sensation from it, or it can be said later and it doesn’t just seem like an echo. I don’t know why that is. If you told me that you could write the same sentence twice in a row and it would have that effect I wouldn’t necessarily take you at your word. But it does.
LR In a pretty big way in most of The Weather, and definitely in a lot of R’s Boat, it’s not the content of the sentences that’s particularly interesting. I wasn’t aiming to write or select or work with “good” sentences or interesting sentences. I was much more interested in working with very banal or “bad” sentences. It’s banal yet true to observe that any æsthetic and stylistic judgment that you might make about any unit of literature, from a body of work to a book to a phrase, is completely contextual. There’s no real value in any content. Value’s just what relationships are built through sequence, through temporal distribution. Whether you’re talking about an institution or a paragraph it doesn’t really matter what the units are. It’s what starts happening between the units, and across the time structure that’s interesting.
The Scene of Writing
TB As I said, I really want to talk about writing, and I’m not exactly sure…
LR What do you mean when you say writing…?
TB I’m not sure if I know what I mean…
LR You’re not talking about method, like how you wrote certain books…
TB No, although that did occur to me. To a certain extent the earliest part of this conversation reminded me of what I was thinking about beforehand, which is that one way of talking about writing is How I Made Certain of My Works. There’s a kind of faux naiveté to that approach, as with Roussel, just simply describing how something was constructed. What was the nature of this project? What did I do? How did I do it?
LR That’s definitely not very interesting…
TB Well, no, perhaps. It isn’t what I would want to construct an interview around at any rate, but I was going to ask you a moment ago if you could describe The Men in those terms, as a project, but it doesn’t sound to me like it was.
LR No, it wasn’t a project. The first, I don’t know, fifteen or twenty pages or so, I just wrote really quickly, and it was contingent on actual upsetting experiences that I was having in my life, and at a certain point I just typed it up and gave it to my friend and she was kind of blown away by it and I started thinking “Oh, well maybe it’s something.” I started puffing up a little bit, because she really liked it, and so I thought maybe I should do some more of this, and I just sort of wrote it like that. It wasn’t a project.
TB So what I meant by writing, I think, is something more in the context of the experience of writing. The scene of writing.
LR Yes. Which is different than the recipe. I mean, who fucking cares about the recipes.
TB Yeah, okay, but I still think that the procedures that were involved in constructing The Weather…I certainly know more about The Weather now than I did before you told me some of the things you told me.
LR But does it change your reading of it? Does it become more interesting really, or…?
TB I don’t know.
LR I’ve never tried to hide my…as far as I have methods or techniques, I’ve never been coy about them.
TB No, in fact you’ve described them.
LR But I don’t think it’s really necessarily that interesting. If you could actually narrate to somebody the way you actually wrote this book, it’s always going to be a little bit of a snow job, because how can you actually narrate the way you wrote the book? You represent certain parts of how you did it, but what does that give anyone? Does it give somebody the sense that they could go and write the book, or does it give them the sense that that helps them as a reader, in some sense, to get to the “real” meaning of the book? I don’t feel that it’s useful to be mystifying and secretive about what writing is, and so that’s why I talk about it, because people seem to want to know, but I actually don’t think it’s very interesting.
TB I don’t have any need to take issue with that, but…
LR If Sir Thomas Browne could tell you how he wrote “Urn Burial,” do you think that would make the text that much more amazing, because Sir Thomas Browne said “Well, you know, I cut my quill, and these are the books I was reading, and I had this conversation with this guy and…” It wouldn’t change the way you read the text.
TB No, but the ways in which the text intersects with other texts is always illuminating. And I’m also thinking back to your comments on Montaigne which….
LR Right, where I found out how he wrote…
TB Right, and that made a real difference. It’s not something that I knew, and it probably made a difference to my thinking about Montaigne. But that’s not what I had in mind when I said writing. What I had in mind was something very much like reading. The speed of reading, the depth of reading, the space of reading, the scene of reading and/or writing. I don’t know quite how to talk about that, but probably, partly maybe, the reason I’m thinking about it is that I had to do some work on “The Postman of Truth,” that Derrida writes on Lacan, “Le facteur de la verité,” “The Factor of Truth”. That’s being written still within the context of that notion of écriture which was present in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, of Roland Barthes‒the whole notion of “writing” and what Derrida refers to as “the scene of writing.” I wonder about the notion of scene, which really he takes from Freud. I think it’s a reference to the primal scene. But I also think, as with everything else he does, that there’s a reference‒a multiplication of references‒for instance toward the mise en scène, the theatre, the notion of space‒writing as something that takes place within a space, be it a psychic space, or other notions of location, and so on. So I wanted us to talk about writing, and maybe in those terms.
Not the KSW Again
TB The one thing I did not want to talk about is the KSW. And yet there’s one thing…
LR Oh good. And the artist-run scene, and…
TB Or even Barscheit, and those associations and so on. All of which are things I might be curious about, but it’s not something I want to question you about. Except that there is something that’s nagging me. It has to do with the comments in the Coach House anthology, Prismatic Publics. They made this decision to characterize certain moments of the KSW as “Marxist,” in a very similar way to which others characterise certain moments as a “feminist intervention.” And so I was surprised‒why I should be surprised I don’t know‒but reading over the body of your work, I was surprised at the extent to which there is, not a programmatic, but at least a somewhat polemical feminism, with which I sympathize, of course. So I think there’s something that’s bothering me about the baldness of those characterizations, that we set up this kind of opposition that I don’t think is…In all my years in and around the KSW I think I’m the only Marxist that I ever encountered.
LR Jeff Derksen is, or was, very Marxist, and part of what those comments have to do with were the actual arguments that he and I would have till late into the night, where we each seemed to stupidly think that one position ought to trump the other. Some Marxists believe that Marxist critique absorbs all other modes of critique. That feminism, for example, might be inherent, or cease to be a problematic, in a more evolved Marxist discourse. I don’t share that position. And it partially had to do with the fact that just talking about writing…Catriona, Christine, me, Nancy Shaw…it was difficult to become a writer as a young woman. It was difficult. And in order to claim the territory that we needed, in order to perform these operations upon ourselves, and upon one another, and upon language, we had to set up a terrain, and we had to be ardent and aggressive about it, because you know even in the KSW nobody’s going to say “Oh, you’re an intelligent young woman and you want to be a writer. Well, go ahead!” The ways that we were trying to figure out how to do what we wanted to do, they were not in synch with what had already been figured out. Yet we wanted to support one another and develop a space for our individual and our collaborative writings to arrive into. And so, you know, we were feminist and we had to really strongly develop that as a polemics, in order to let ourselves do what we wanted to do. We’d been studying literature and we saw what happens to women. They go out of print. Have you looked at Sina’s blog lately? “Lemon Hound”? She’s published this website that looks at simply numbers on major literary critical publications–how many men’s books get reviewed and how many women’s books get reviewed. And it’s still just fucking disgusting, if you look at the numbers in the LRB and the New Yorker, the NYRB, so on down the line. The numbers – it’s fucking Neanderthal, you know, 20% women, 11% women, it’s still the same shit. So you know that when you’re a young woman, when basically you’re just being eroticized by everybody around you, because that’s your function as a young woman, to be the cultural Eros that can’t be anywhere else, and that’s all that people really want you to be, and you’ll come to the event and look sexy, or say something sexy, or whatever the fuck, you know you’ve got to be something different. Maybe the people around you, would never actually say “No, we don’t want you to write” or “we don’t want you to publish” or “we don’t want your work to have a future”–nobody would say that, but we know that institutions nevertheless function that way. I don’t know any guy who would say to a woman writer: “You have no right to write, you have no right to believe that there’s a future for your work and the work of other women.” I don’t know a single guy who would say that, even the biggest assholes I can think of. Yet that is how institutions function. And so when you’re recognizing this, when you’re in your twenties, in your thirties, it’s imperative to do something. You can’t just think “Oh well, that won’t happen to me, I’m different…”
TB Okay, so that struggle is about rights, and it becomes more and more difficult to convince young women, in some contexts, that those rights still don’t exist. That this hasn’t been accomplished, because you only have to look at statistics like the ones you were just talking about, but also even the wage.
LR There’s no parity, all the way down the line. There’s no parity anywhere.
TB Right. And there’s a need‒and it isn’t just about women‒of course there’s a need to struggle for those rights. But part of the struggle‒in your work as well‒is an argument with patriarchy. When you’re working within and against the genres that you’re working within and against in your early work, you’re taking apart Virgil and Dante. In terms of what you were saying earlier about the De vulgari eloquentia, Dante is not doing what he thinks he’s doing. One of the bits of work that can and has been done very successfully, whether it’s through critical theory or deconstruction, using those tools, or Marxism, or psychoanalysis, is working away at those structures and revealing them not only not to be coherent, but not even to be what they think they are.
TB But I was thinking about the notion of‒when I was thinking about Marx earlier, for myself‒of the problematic of “the Great Man,” as described by Carlyle for instance. Or Lacan, when he speaks of Marx and Freud, and describes them as horizons beyond which one cannot think. That is, you can’t think beyond the horizons that are established by a Marxist-Hegelianism, or by Freud as I read Freud, Lacan’s Freud. There’s still this sense of the Great Man. And you can’t just replace that with…one of the projects of feminism, as of all sorts of histories, within the context of various sorts of exploitation, is to recuperate a past, because women have always been writing, and you can find indexes, hundreds of pages of just lists of women writers through the ages. You bring them forward and what you find is something quite astonishing over and over and over. But what you can’t do…
LR It’s so sickening that we have to be constantly astonished by this. “My God, women have been intellectuals, Wow! Imagine that!”
TB But you can’t then simply…say that work were successful, do you then end up with the Great Women? You don’t, you see, because part of the critique, if it is a critique of patriarchy, is a critique of power.
LR No, the desire is not to simply turn the tables and identify with the structure of power as it’s transmitted and bolstered and reproduced. Yes, it is a critique of power per se. I identify with that critique really strongly in my work.
TB Just a correction‒last time we spoke, I said that Madame Vionnet had just died. I was reading a reprint of an article that was published in ‘75, so she had just died in ‘75.
LR That makes more sense to me.
TB I didn’t want to leave that hanging out there.
LR That hanging thread, as it were. (Laughter)
TB Another thing that occurred to me was that with the title “The Men” there’s no question that it would be on “man,” on the concept of man. When you say “the men,” and given what you have to say in the book, you also seem to be talking about a given coterie of men. And in the first poem you’re evoking this coterie, the sense of a male coterie. The answer to this might simply be “no,” but I always thought there was a reference to the film “The Women”‒the George Cukor film “The Women,” which is about a group of women who go off to a dude ranch to chill out when they’re having men troubles.
LR That sounds like a great movie. I’ve never seen it.
TB You’ve never seen it. That’s funny. That’s really funny. It’s a Clare Boothe play. Anita Loos, I think, wrote the script. It’s been a favourite of mine. I’m really disappointed!
TB That’s one of the difficulties with attempting a critical reading, you can get over-extended really easily.
TB I went back and looked at Benveniste‒and again it seemed pertinent to this discussion…as was the Duras clip that you showed me. Because there he is, eh?‒Gérard Dépardieu‒and he’s being thoroughly objectified by the silence of the two women.
LR And they’re just refusing any interpolation whatsoever.
TB Yeah, but it really is the analytic situation. Recently, at the Lacan Salon, we had a discussion of Lacan’s “Rome Discourse,” and the notion of empty speech, which is what it begins with…
LR Yeah, Dépardieu’s just blabbering…
TB Yeah, and I was sort of expecting at some point that he would break down and come to the full speech that would tap his unconscious. Maybe he didn’t because he really wasn’t a salesman anyway.
LR He was just sort of clutching the briefcase. The briefcase is like the unconscious. All the truth is in the briefcase…
TB His licence. The pamphlet. But how do you know he wasn’t a salesman?
LR …and the more disturbed he gets the more he’s sort of twisting the briefcase.
TB What makes you say he wasn’t a salesman?
LR Well because when he left the house, before he knocks on the doors he tries the door handles.
TB He’s a thief!
LR He’s a thief. He tries the door handle of each house before he knocks on the door. And then when he circles back around to the vacuum cleaner salesman’s van he doesn’t get into it. He just looks like he’s about to, like he’s playing this role, and then he sidles on. So what’s he done? Has he stolen the briefcase out of the van in order to…
TB He came into their home without being invited…
LR Yes, he just walks in…
TB They just happened to be there. And he had a perfect alibi for that occasion. I don’t know though, he seemed so disappointed when he found that they already had the same model vacuum cleaner. He seemed like he was going to break down in tears when his identity was so threatened.
LR Do you think he came to believe the role that he was playing?
TB I don’t know. That’s what we do. That’s the nature of the Imaginary, right?
Trashfuck or Hydromel
TB “Trashfuck or hydromel.” Hydromel, in its context, is not necessarily mead, it’s honey and water. I looked it up all over the place trying to find something more than I could find anywhere. Even Mrs. Byrne’s Dictionary, she says it’s mead. But the odd thing was I couldn’t find it in Liddell and Scott. It may not be a Greek word. It’s a combination of “hydro” and “mele.” I could find those words but I couldn’t find “hydromele.”
LR I wonder where he got it?
TB I think it’s a Latin word.
LR A Latin word made out of Greek words.
TB But I was expecting to find some etymology, or something that would be interesting. But in the context of the De vulgari eloquentia, it’s the sweetness that’s issuing from the lips once the illustrious vulgar tongue is recuperated, or found‒it’s not recuperated, it’s found.
LR I just partly liked it as a word, you know. It’s just a very pleasant word. In the lyric poem you’re used to all kinds of wine and milk and tears. It’s usually various fluids that circulate through the lyric.
What is Love
TB Am I imagining things or does the question “what is love?” occur across several books?
LR I think it must. It’s in Debbie. It’s in the poem “She Has Smoothed Her Pants to No End” in Debbie, “And if you call that sophistry / then what is love?” Is it in R’s Boat too?
TB I’m not sure, but it was certainly in one or two others. (Pause) I had the notion of a sort of second order irony when I was reading through this.
LR What do you mean by “second order…”
TB Well, for example, the utterance “What is love,” given the contexts in which it’s posed, leaves open the possibility of the question not being serious. The question of love is not resolvable and therefore it’s pointless to ask, “What is love?”
LR Yes. But one would recognize that intellectually, at the same time finding oneself in a position where it seems like a pertinent question to be asking.
TB Also it seems like a plaint when you say it.
LR Mm-hm. Whine!
TB And there are other words‒I know I said last time there are repetitions that occur through all of your books‒there are words that you just seem to really enjoy, like “louche.”
LR I’m trying now to discipline myself to not use certain words. There’s this Irish poet, I think her name is Mairead Byrne – I’m not sure if that’s how you pronounce her name‒she teaches in the eastern States now–but I heard her give an incredible reading in London, and this one line that she used–I’m not sure if she used the line in a poem or whether it was part of the chit chat around introducing the poem, but she said “I now no longer use better words.” (Laughter) And that seems to be pretty good advice – to be a person who no longer uses better words.
TB I can really imagine having written the first piece, which is the fifth walk, and wondering “What the hell do I do with this now?,” because it doesn’t seem to stand alone. It’s a kind of pastiche of a certain type of narrative or film, and it involves the arcades–it begins in the arcades and winds up in the Bois de Boulogne, which is really Queen Elizabeth Park, I think. That’s the only mound I could think of.
LR I was just making it up–I was living out in Mission. I suppose it’s my fantasy of the city from Mission…
TB …your imaginary geography…
LR …from Hatzic…
TB That’s really fascinating, to hear how you then structured a narrative retroactively around that. But I was also curious about a couple of things. One was this notion of walking, and I know that, as you just said, the Rousseau comes a little after that writing. But that writing already carries a bit of the flȃneur, of Baudelaire, of Apollinaire.
LR I’d been reading a lot of stuff about the flâneur. It was in the mid ‘90s, and everybody was talking about the flâneur. The Benjamin text, the Passagenwerk, it hadn’t been translated into English yet. There was a Susan Buck Morse title that was about the Passagenwerk. And then there were various feminist cultural historians who were critiquing the gendered concept of the flâneur. Janet Wolff was one, I think. So I’d been reading a lot about the flâneur. In a way Djuna Barnes’s text Nightwood is the text of the female flâneur. Women who walk at night. And that was a really, really influential book for me. Talk about somebody who picked up arcane style and exploded it, which she did in each of her books. So yes, I already had this interest in the flâneur and in walking. My interests led me to teach a course at KSW on walking in the city. And that’s when I opened up all this walking research historically. I read people like John Thelwall, the late 18th century English walker, and Sarah Hazlitt, who Hazlitt was trying to divorce in order to marry a teenaged chambermaid. They were trying to get an easy divorce in Scotland and it took however many days, thirty days, or probably forty, and so she just walked every day for the thirty or forty days and wrote. Walked and wrote. So it’s really one of the great walking texts of the Romantic era. Or Diary of an English Opium Eater as a walking text. There are all these great Romantic walking texts, so I started systematically finding out about them and reading them, and that’s when I wrote all the rest of those texts, in that period.
TB I brought this to show you [Petrarch’s Four Dialogues for Scholars]. I’ve had this book for years‒maybe I bought it from your bookstore, I don’t know, but…
LR The cover doesn’t look familiar…
TB I never noticed the inscription before and I thought it was really funny: “To Dean Eagles from Les Girls.” You imagine Dean Eagles, the classicist, having a little collection of girls in his class, who stuck together because they needed to…
LR A chorus, a little chorus line. Great. This is nice: “I did not steal but inadvertently took a few words from him who often stole so much from Homer, Ennius, Lucretius and many others.”
TB Which essay is that? Which dialogue?
LR Appendix, Three Letters. “To Boccaccio.” Oh my goodness. It’s just so amazing that it’s possible to read something like that.
TB They were threatened by literacy. I recognized in one piece, on the multiplicity of books, or something, there’s a dialogue about…the dialogues are always between Joy and Reason. Of course, Joy is a woman. In these mediæval and renaissance dialogues, Folly is always a woman. Folly would dialogue with Reason. But this is Joy and Reason, discoursing on different topics. And there’s one on how there were too many books being written. And so many people writing books who really don’t have the right to write books.
LR It’s hilarious if you just read Joy’s first lines. “What do you think of the fact that I myself write books?” “I write.” “I do write books.” “Books I do write.” “I write ardently.” “I write much.” “I write, and this is my only enjoyment.” “The urge to write is enormously strong.” “I have written much and am still writing.” “Much I have written.” “I write and hope to become famous by writing.” “I write nevertheless, yearning for fame.”
TB What is he saying to her?
LR He’s saying all kinds of hoo-hah. (In an affected, pompous voice:) “As I have said before, perhaps you might better plough or hoe.” (Laughter) “A great many roads often mislead the traveller.”
TB Well, fuck you, I’m going to write! She doesn’t give it up, does she?
LR “I have an abundance of books.”
TB What’s her last word?
LR “I write nevertheless, yearning for fame.” That is so great. “O distinguished Folly! No wonder parchment is more expensive than it used to be.”
TB Everybody’s writing! It’s the demand.
LR This is great. The illustration of the scriptorum. “I have a goodly number of books.” “I own books which are aids to study.” “I keep many excellent books.” (Laughs) It’s kind of like Dépardieu selling a vacuum cleaner! “Did I mention my books?”
TB Except in this case Reason just keeps talking! (Long pause) I like the sense that you get from Dante’s De vulgari eloquentia that he’s not that bright. You’d be making a mistake, I think, if you just extended it to his period, that everybody just made arguments that were based on false premises and that was it. But he says things that, as you read them, you sort of laugh. You’re laughing from a position of modernity, and there’s a kind of foolishness that you’re recognizing. There are also really brilliant moments, but Cavalcanti’s little treatise on love, “Donna me prega”…
LR I haven’t read it…
TB …is just so much smarter than what’s going on here, it’s just…
LR Well this was not published.
TB No, it wasn’t even finished.
LR It wasn’t finished. Just, you know, to vaguely defend Dante. Maybe he realized it was a crapola text and ditched it.
TB It’s possible.
LR But it’s one of the pleasures of reading it, too, that it’s just so rife with paradox.
Violette Leduc and Genet
TB …But also Violette Leduc whom I know little about…
LR She wasn’t really a pornographer. She’s been treated as a pornographer.
TB Well I know her as a scandal because when her book was published in the ‘60s it was brought out to compete with Genet and so La Bâtarde was like…I read it because it was supposed to be scandalous.
LR You were probably fairly disappointed.
TB Yeah, I was, but not entirely, because it was like Genet.
LR Her style was scandalous.
TB Tell me about that.
LR Well, it was so purple and over the top. It was bloated. And yet completely precise. I think I’ve read all her books, in English translation. You used to be able to get these Panther paperbacks that had very bawdy covers–sort of demi-lit, nudie torsos.
TB The comparison to Genet, though, at the time, worked in two ways, at least in terms of the book’s American reception. It worked as a method of publicity, but it also worked as a way of putting her aside. I’m remembering this. This was such a long time ago, but I recall that for those who didn’t want her she was a diminutive Genet or a faux Genet. And yet the comparison is apt, I think…
LR One of her first books is about her big crush on Genet. They were in overlapping social circles and they were contemporaries. One of the things you could presume by reading their texts together is that Genet is not some kind of self-made genius who just popped fully-formed out of his jail cell into literature. There’s a tradition that his work is coming out of in France and that her work is also coming out of. It would pertain to the whole decadent era. Au Rebours, for example.
TB Genet references Proust as a big fire source…
LR And Proust himself was very influenced by late 19th century Engish decadent prose. I think that Violette Leduc and Jean Genet had a closely-related stylistic genealogy. And it might also be related to Montaigne to a certain extent. And Rousseau, in the treatment of the autobiographical as a sort of scandalous…
TB And Villon, in their elevation of what’s understood to be base.
LR Yes, and I haven’t read enough Genet actually to be able to responsibly compare them, but given my biases I would hazard a guess that part of the reason that Genet is read now and Leduc is not read is that Violette Leduc is a woman.
TB That’s what I was saying. Even at the time, the reception of her work was an attempt to close it down on the one hand, and to take advantage of Genet’s sudden fame on the other. I first read about Genet in Time Magazine.
TB …Maybe just to finish off, if that’s alright, I wanted to ask you about the city. We were sort of there, we were walking, but it’s interesting that your relation with the city…the city isn’t your only place of being, as it is for me. I don’t have much of a relationship with the country. I haven’t had much success with that. But all along you’ve been living in the country and living in the city and back and forth, and even in France you found your way into the equivalent of the extra-suburban neighbourhood that you lived in here.
LR Yes, where I was in France was “La France profonde,” it’s got nothing to do with suburbia.
TB I meant beyond suburbia, but I guess even beyond the beyond!
LR I guess there would be some places that are more profonde, but not many. I grew up between places, so it’s sort of normal to me. My family is from Toronto but we moved first to the suburbs…
TB From where?
LR From Toronto.
TB From where in Toronto? Like right downtown?
LR I guess.
TB But not in the suburbs.
LR No, we moved to the suburbs from Toronto. The suburbs being Cooksville, Mississauga, and then we moved from the suburbs out to the countryside. It was probably 1968. My parents thought it was a better place for kids. They were having a lot of kids–there were four of us. So we moved out to an agricultural village. We rented an old farm when I was seven. My father continued to work in Toronto and we continued to go and visit my grandparents, who were Toronto people. So I kind of grew up between the two places. I guess I’ve just sort of maintained that duplicity. I don’t have any problem wanting both.
TB There was a comment in “Lastingness,” or a quotation from Flaubert, from The Dictionary of Received Ideas that–what was it? Something about the suburbs in relationship to revolution. That when things start going wrong in the suburbs, the order may really come to be shaken. That made me think of May ‘68 and the fact that it wasn’t just an event of the city, it was an event of the suburbs.
LR This is true of the more recent French revolutionary uprisings too.
TB Have you made any use in your teaching, or in your work, of the Kristin Ross book that you’ve read so thoroughly, May ’68 and its Afterlives?
LR Just to recommend it to people. I did use it in the course I taught a couple of times on The Archaeology of Knowledge, because Foucault was writing that during the May ‘68 uprising. He was teaching in Tunisia and this friend called him and said “Come back to see this, you have to see this.” So I used that book to give a historical context to what was happening in France at the time of the writing. She talks at length about the French police and the formation of the police, and she uses Rancière. He has a book on the police. She cites Rancière extensively and so that, in the context of reading Foucault, becomes very interesting, to talk about the city in terms of policing. And the specific history of policing in France and how that came to shape the city and social movements. So I’ve used it to that extent. And also just because when I was reading it most closely I was living in France, so it was a way to inform myself about the recent history of the place I was living in. You see CRS cops all the time, and they’re freaking scary. I just intuitively–I’m not somebody who’s totally cop-shy, or anything like that, but these guys, they’re frightening presences, and they’re meant to be frightening presences. So I felt like it was a good thing to learn about the history of the city I was living in. I was living up in the 19th which is primarily a neighbourhood of North African and African immigrants, so we’d see all the time cops hassling brown men outside the window. Hassling them for papers, etcetera. I needed to know what was going on.
TB I think the thing that really opened my eyes, and it wasn’t just that book, but that book certainly…was that May ‘68 is a response to, or an afterlife of the war, of Algeria.
LR I didn’t know anything about that before reading Ross…
TB The brutality of the putting down of the demonstration in ‘61 is quite extraordinary. Probably 100 dead…
LR Something I recently read used the figure 300. Kathleen just lent me Revolt She Said by Kristeva and she said it was 200 to 300…
TB The curious thing is that when you then go on to read about what had already happened in Algeria, that begins to look like a minor incident, when you see the kind of carnage–I mean the in the initial actions, the French killed thousands in a single massacre…
LR You know that filmmaker Haneke?
TB Yeah, Caché, that film…
LR I just watched that last week on Netflix. That was an amazing film that was basically about Algeria, but took on all of the French suppression of that violence, and the continuance of that repressed violence within people at an individual psychological level as well as at the general cultural level. I thought that was such an exceptional film.
TB In the interview Haneke talks about exactly what we were just talking about. He had no idea. And he said he was horrified to find out that there were bodies floating in the Seine for days…
LR There’s a scene in that movie where the French-Algerian man slits his throat, and I mean that scene in all of its complete shockingness, that single throat-slitting, and the fact that he forces the French guy to witness it, is like the forcing of a witnessing of all of the violence in Algeria that we can’t even imagine. It’s like bringing it all into the present tense. Saying “This needs to be witnessed.” And yet there’s this sense also of the complete inadequacy of the witness. ■
This piece originally appeared in TCR 3.15 (Fall 2011)