The Truth of an Era by Patrik Ourednik, trans. Jackson B. Smith
“What interests me about writing, other people’s writing as much as my own, is what we usually call the ‘truth of an era.’ This term is of course extremely vague because in every era different truths—multiple truths—exist and coexist. The trick then has to do with trying to bring together—to embrace—this multitude, this plurality of things. An author has various means at his disposal, the most prevalent among them being the confrontation of destinies—human lives—through the lens of microhistory.
As for me, I try, at least in some of my books, to apply a somewhat different practice, starting with the premise that it is possible to take the language of an era as a synonym for the ‘truth of an era,’ in other words, to take hold of a certain number of language’s tics, stereotypes and commonplaces and to make sure that they act and that they confront one other in the same way as the characters of a traditional narrative.
Just like historians, authors work with writings—chronicles, correspondences, historical newspapers, etc. We can take on these writings in two ways. Either—what historians do—we can look at them first (not necessarily exclusively, but as a priority) for information about the event itself, ‘what happened,’ ‘what took place.’ Or else we can look at them with the priority of finding out how the event is dealt with. In other words, it is no longer a question, from this perspective, of knowing who won the battle of Waterloo, but of seeing how reporters described it. The truth of an era is in the description, not in the event itself. In the reaction, not in the action. Human destinies follow the same path: we shape ourselves through our interpretations of this or of that event.
In reality all of this is quite banal—just like the stereotypes that allow us to exist. Personally, I have a tendency to believe that human life is in itself a disillusioning banality—regardless of whatever horrors might come our way in the course of a lifetime. But just so, expressing banality in literature is quite delicate. Very paradoxically, banality becomes implausible once it is put into a form: and that is where literature can intervene just as well as historiography can. In both cases, the content—a supposed synonym for reality—does not exist. The content is a pile of virtual sand and to pull out any reality, we must first tamp it into a bucket, water it and make a paste. It’s still the same pile of sand but, in the meantime, it has become, depending on the case, a history textbook or a work of literature. In both cases, consciously or unconsciously, we call upon stereotypes, upon commonplaces, because rightly, the common place is the only place where we can find out what we have in common.
Human destinies, while they may be banal, are not interchangeable. The problem with literature is that it consists of subsuming things into a more or less premeditated structure, into an architecture that unavoidably brings a hierarchization along with it. Yet if there is one thing in the world that should elude all hierarchization, it is correctly human life and individual destinies. Stereotypes—my dear stereotypes—are, themselves, interchangeable—all the while allowing to appear, even through their unbearable simplification, another truth, another experience, another destiny.
Put differently, if we want to denounce prejudices, clichés, commonplaces, we must plant ourselves in the heart of these commonplaces, in the heart of ambient discourse, in the heart of all kinds of idiocy. That’s at least what I believe and what I’ve tried to do in these two books.
To sum up the plurality of human truths—and therefore to be prepared to read and maybe even to understand History—we would have to present things as though they had been smashed to bits, dispersed, as though they were not in a hierarchy, as though they were in some way entirely horizontal. We would also have to render the elements that comprise a text or a narrative, we would have to render them mobile, fleeting, equivocating at all times.
We would also have to watch out so that the word truth might never be pronounced in the singular. Truth in the singular cannot not be stereotyped insofar as it is bent on moving as close as possible to generality. And if we often say that literature is a protest against the erasure of things into forgetfulness, to that we must add conceptual generalizations of life which make life experiences disappear—simulacra of life are akin to forgetfulness.
The problem is that society is horrified by the plural. Society cannot be held up by fluid foundations. Society needs a clearly formulated collective history and, thus, a truth that is in some way supra-true. A truth posed at the peak of social construction, a vertical and immobile truth. We therefore have, on the one hand, a schema in which everything is fleeting and, on the other hand, the necessity to produce a certain number of illusions thanks to which it is possible to attain a common language that, in turn, gives us a common place, both literally and figuratively.
Seen from this angle, literature is a binary illusion: under the pretext of demonstrating the illusory nature of such and such social truth, it itself produces the illusion of another truth that is fairer and nobler. In reality, it does nothing but oppose the process of manufacturing its own reality with other processes that are just as legitimate.
If literature consequently must have any such function—outside of distraction and, potentially, intellectual stimulation—I would ascribe it the role of the Abbey of Thélème, that is a space where it is wholesome to succumb to illusions in the company of people who think just like us. If we proclaim this project, the Abbey of Thélème, which is exceedingly elitist, if we proclaim it universal, we obtain, de facto, the anarchist utopia—that is a world where truths and identifications no longer coexist vertically, but horizontally—and, despite that, peacefully.
If this world one day came about, literature would lose its raison d’être. We cannot have everything, both a world without conflict—the notorious end of History that will abolish historic time—and literature.”