How do you envisage the relationship between your early philosophical writings, above all L’Etre et Le Néant, and your present theoretical work, from the Critique de la Raison Dialectique onwards? In the Critique, the typical concepts of L’Etre et Le Néant have disappeared, and a completely new vocabulary has taken their place. Yet when reading the passages of your forthcoming study of Flaubert published in Les Temps Modernes one is struck by the sudden re-emergence of the characteristic idiom of the early work—thetic consciousness, ego, nihilation, being, nothingness. These notions are now juxtaposed in the text with the distinct set of concepts which derive from the Critique—serialization, totalization, practico-inert, collectives. What is the precise relationship between the two in your current thought?
The basic question here, of course, is my relationship to Marxism. I will try to explain autobiographically certain aspects of my early work, which may help to clarify the reasons why my outlook changed so fundamentally after the Second World War. A simple formula would be to say that life taught me la force des choses—the power of circumstances. In a way, L’Etre et Le Néant itself should have been the beginning of a discovery of this power of circumstances, since I had already been made a soldier, when I had not wanted to be one. Thus I had already encountered something that was not my freedom and which steered me from without. Then I was taken prisoner, a fate which I had sought to escape. Hence I started to learn what I have called human reality among things: Being-in-theworld.
Then, little by little, I found that the world was more complicated than this, for during the Resistance there appeared to be a possibility of free decision. For my state of mind during those years, I think that the first plays I wrote are very symptomatic: I called them a ‘theatre of freedom’. The other day, I re-read a prefatory note of mine to a collection of these plays—Les Mouches, Huis Clos and others—and was truly scandalized. I had written: ‘Whatever the circumstances, and wherever the site, a man is always free to choose to be a traitor or not . . .’. When I read this, I said to myself: it’s incredible, I actually believed that!
To understand how I could have done so, you must remember that there was a very simple problem during the Resistance—ultimately, only a question of courage. One had to accept the risks involved in what one was doing, that is, of being imprisoned or deported. But beyond this? A Frenchman was either for the Germans or against them, there was no other option. The real political problems, of being ‘for, but’ or ‘against, but’, were not posed by this experience. The result was that I concluded that in any circumstances, there is always a possible choice. Which is false. Indeed, it is so false that I later wanted precisely to refute myself by creating a character in Le Diable et Le Bon Dieu, Heinrich, who cannot choose. He wants to choose, of course, but he cannot choose either the Church, which has abandoned the poor, or the poor, who have abandoned the Church. He is thus a living contradiction, who will never choose. He is totally conditioned by his situation.
However, I understood all this only much later. What the drama of the war gave me, as it did everyone who participated in it, was the experience of heroism. Not my own, of course—all I did was a few errands. But the militant in the Resistance who was caught and tortured became a myth for us. Such militants existed, of course, but they represented a sort of personal myth as well. Would we be able to hold out against torture too? The problem then was solely that of physical endurance—it was not the ruses of history or the paths of alienation. A man is tortured: what will he do? He either speaks or refuses to speak. This is what I mean by the experience of heroism, which is a false experience.
After the war came the true experience, that of society. But I think it was necessary for me to pass via the myth of heroism first. That is to say, the pre-war personage who was more or less Stendhal’s egotistical individualist had to be plunged into circumstances against his will, yet where he still had the power to say yes or no, in order to encounter the inextricable entanglements of the post-war years as a man totally conditioned by his social existence and yet sufficiently capable of decision to reassume all this conditioning and to become responsible for it. For the idea which I have never ceased to develop is that in the end one is always responsible for what is made of one. Even if one can do nothing else besides assume this responsibility. For I believe that a man can always make something out of what is made of him. This is the limit I would today accord to freedom: the small movement which makes of a totally conditioned social being someone who does not render back completely what his conditioning has given him. Which makes of Genet a poet when he had been rigorously conditioned to be a thief.
Perhaps the book where I have best explained what I mean by freedom is, in fact, Saint Genet. For Genet was made a thief, he said ‘I am a thief’, and this tiny change was the start of a process whereby he became a poet and then eventually a being no longer even on the margin of society, someone who no longer knows where he is, who falls silent. It cannot be a happy freedom, in a case like this. Freedom is not a triumph. For Genet, it simply marked out certain routes which were not initially given.
L’Etre et Le Néant traced an interior experience, without any coordination with the exterior experience of a petty-bourgeois intellectual, which had become historically catastrophic at a certain moment. For I wrote L’Etre et Le Néant after the defeat of France, after all. But catastrophes have no lessons, unless they are the culmination of a praxis. Then one can say, my action has failed. But the disaster which overwhelmed the country had taught us nothing. Thus, in L’Etre et Le Néant, what you could call ‘subjectivity’ is not what it would be for me now, the small margin in an operation whereby an interiorization reexteriorizes itself in an act. But ‘subjectivity’ and ‘objectivity’ seem to me entirely useless notions today, anyway. I might still use the term ‘objectivity’, I suppose, but only to emphasize that everything is objective. The individual interiorizes his social determinations: he interiorizes the relations of production, the family of his childhood, the historical past, the contemporary institutions, and he then re-exteriorizes these in acts and options which necessarily refer us back to them. None of this existed in L’Etre et Le Néant.
In L’Etre et Le Néant, you radically rejected the concept of the unconscious, saying that it was a philosophical contradiction. The model of consciousness in your early work effectively excludes any idea of it whatever. Consciousness is always transparent to itself, even if the subject creates a false screen of ‘bad faith’. Since then, you have among other things written a film-script on Freud—
—I broke with Huston preciesly because Huston did not understand what the unconscious was. That was the whole problem. He wanted to suppress it, to replace it with the pre-conscious. He did not want the unconscious at any price—
The question one would like to ask is how you conceive the precise theoretical statute of the work of Freud today? Given your class position, it is not perhaps so surprising that you did not discover Marx before the war. But how did you miss Freud? Surely the opaque evidence of the unconscious, its resistances, should have been accessible to you even then? They are not exactly comparable to the class struggle.
The two questions are linked, however. The thought of both Marx and Freud is a theory of conditioning in exteriority. When Marx says: ‘It matters little what the bourgeoisie thinks it does, the important thing is what it does,’ one could replace the ‘bourgeoisie’ by ‘a hysteric’, and the formula would be one of Freud. Having said this, I must try to recount my relationship to Freud’s work biographically. I will begin by saying that I undoubtedly had a deep repugnance for psychoanalysis in my youth, which needs to be explained as much as my innocence of the class struggle. The fact that I was a petty-bourgeois was responsible for the latter; one might say that the fact that I was French was responsible for the former. There would certainly be a lot of truth in this. You must never forget the weight of Cartesian rationalism in France. When you have just taken the bachot at the age of 17, with the ‘I think, therefore I am’ of Descartes as your set text, and you open The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, and you read the famous episode of Signorelli with its substitutions, combinations and displacements, implying that Freud was simultaneously thinking of a patient who had committed suicide and of certain Turkish mores, and so on—when you read all that, your breath is simply taken away.
Such investigations were completely outside my preoccupations at the time, which were at bottom to provide a philosophical foundation for realism. Which in my opinion is possible today, and which I have tried to do all my life. In other words, how to give man both his autonomy and his reality among real objects, avoiding idealism without lapsing into a mechanistic materialism. I posed the problem in this way because I was ignorant of dialectical materialism, although I should add that this later allowed me to assign certain limits to it—to validate the historical dialectic while rejecting a dialectic of nature, in the sense of a natural process which produces and resolves man into an ensemble of physical laws.
To return to Freud, however, I have to say that I was incapable of understanding him because I was a Frenchman with a good Cartesian tradition behind me, imbued with a certain rationalism, and I was therefore deeply shocked by the idea of the unconscious. However, I will not say only this because I must add that I remain shocked by what was inevitable in Freud—the biological and physiological language with which he underpinned thoughts which were not translatable into without mediation. Right up to the time of Fliess, as you know, he wrote physiological studies designed to provide an equivalent of the cathexes and equilibria he had found in psychoanalysis. The result is that the manner in which he describes the psychoanalytic object suffers from a kind of mechanistic cramp. This is not always true, for there are moments when he transcends this. But in general this language produces a mythology of the unconscious which I cannot accept. I am completely in agreement with the facts of diguise and repression, as facts. But the words ‘repression’, ‘censorship’, or ‘drive’—words which express one moment a sort of finalism and the next moment a sort of mechanism, these I reject. Let us take the example of ‘condensation’, for instance, which is an ambivalent term in Freud. One can interpret it simply as a phenomenon of association, in the same way as your English philosophers and psychologists of the 18th and 19th centuries. Two images are drawn together externally, they condense and form a third: this is classical psychological atomism. But one can also interpret the term on the contrary as expressive of a finality. Condensation occurs because two images combined answer a desire, a need. This sort of ambiguity occurs again and again in Freud. The result is a strange representation of the unconscious as a set of rigorous mechanistic determinations, in any event a casuality, and at the same time as a mysterious finality, such that there are ‘ruses’ of the unconscious, as there are ‘ruses’ of history; yet it is impossible to reunite the two in the work of many analysts—at least early analysts. I think that there is always a fundamental ambiguity in them; the unconscious is one moment another consciousness, and the next moment other than consciousness. What is other than consciousness then becomes simply a mechanism.
Thus I would reproach psychaoanalytic theory with being a syncretic and not a dialectical thought. The word ‘complex’, indeed, indicates this very evidently: interpenetration without contradiction. I agree, of course, that there may exist an enormous number of ‘larval’ contradictions within individuals, which are often translated in certain situations by interpenetrations and not by confrontations. But this does not mean these contradictions do not exist. The results of syncretism, on the contrary, can be seen in the idea of the Oedipus complex, for instance: the fact is that analysts manage to find everything in it, equally well the fixation on the mother, love of the mother, or hatred of the mother, as Melanie Klein argues. In other words, anything can be derived from it, since it is not structured. The consequence is that an analyst can say one thing and then the contrary immediately afterwards, without in any way worrying about lack of logic, since after all ‘opposites interpenetrate’. A phenomenon can mean this, while its contrary can also mean the same thing. Psychoanalytic theory is thus a ‘soft’ thought. It has no dialectical logic to it. Psychoanalysts will tell me that this because there is no such logic in reality. But this precisely what I am not sure of: I am convinced that complexes exist, but I am not so certain that they are not structured.
In particular, I believe that if complexes are true structures, ‘analytic scepticism’ would have to be abandoned. What I call the ‘affective scepticism’ of psychoanalysts is the belief of so many of them that the relationship which unites two people is only a ‘reference’ to an original relationship which is an absolute: an allusion to a primal scene, incomparable and unforgettable—yet forgotten—between father and mother. Ultimately, any sentiment experienced by an adult becomes for the analyst a sort of occasion for the rebirth of another. Now, there is a real truth in this: the fixation of a girl on an older man may well come from her father, or the fixation of a young man on a girl may derive from a profusion of original relationships. But what is missing in conventional psychoanalytic accounts is the idea of dialectical irreducibility. In a truly dialectical theory, such as historical materialism, phenomena derive from each other dialectically: there are different configurations of dialectical reality, and each of these configurations is rigorously conditioned by the previous one, while preserving and superseding it at the same time. This supersession is, however, precisely irreducible. While one configuration may preserve another, it can never simply be reduced to its predecessor. It is the idea of this autonomy that is lacking in psychoanalytic theory. A sentiment or a passion between two persons is certainly highly conditioned by their relationship to the ‘primal object’, and one can locate this object within it and explain the new relationship by it; but the relationship itself remains irreducible.
Thus there is an essential difference in my relationship to Marx and my relationship to Freud. When I discovered the class struggle, this was a true discovery, in which I now believe totally, in the very form of the descriptions which Marx gave of it. Only the epoch has changed; otherwise it is the same struggle with the same classes and the same road to victory. Whereas I do not believe in the unconscious in the form in which psychoanalysis presents it to us. In my present book on Flaubert, I have replaced my earlier notion of consciousness (although I still use the word a lot), with what I call le vécu—lived experience. I will try to describe in a moment what I mean by this term, which is neither the precautions of the preconscious, nor the unconscious, nor consciousness, but the terrain in which the individual is perpetually overflowed by himself and his riches and consciousness plays the trick of determining itself by forgetfulness.
In L’Etre et Le Néant, there is not much room for the phenomenon of dreams. For Freud dreams mere a privileged ‘space’ of the unconscious, the zone where psychoanalysis was discovered. Do you try to situate the space of dreams in your current work? This would be a concrete test of your present relationship to Freud.
My work on Flaubert deals with dreams. Unfortunately Flaubert himself reports very few of his dreams. But there are two extremely striking ones—both nightmares, which he recounts in Mémoires d’un Fou, an autobiography he wrote at the age of 17, and which are thus perhaps partly invented. One concerns his father, the other his mother: both reveal his relationship to his parents with an extraordinary evidence. The interesting thing, however, is that otherwise Flaubert virtually never mentions his parents in his writings. In fact, he had very bad relationships with both his father and his mother, for a whole number of reasons which I try to analyse. He says nothing about them. They do not exist in his early works. The only time that he speaks of them, he speaks of them precisely where a psychoanalyst would like him to do, in the narrative of a dream. Yet it is Flaubert himself who spontaneously does so. Thereafter, at the very end of his life, five years before he died, he published a novella called La Légende de Saint Julien l’Hospitalier, which he said he had wanted to write for thirty years: it is in effect the story of a man who kills his father and his mother and who becomes a writer by doing so.
Thus Flaubert has two quite different conceptions of himself. One is at the level of banal description, for example when he writes to his mistress Louise: ‘What am I? Am I intelligent or am I stupid? Am I sensitive or am I stolid? Am I mean or am I generous? Am I selfish or am I selfless? I have no idea, I suppose I am like everyone else, I waver between all these. . . .’ In other words, at this level he is completely lost. Why? Because none of these notions has any meaning in themselves. They only acquire a meaning from inter-subjectivity, in other words what I have called in the Critique the ‘objective spirit’ within which each member of a group or society refers to himself and appears to others, establishing relations of interiority between persons which derive from the same information or the same context.
Yet one cannot say that Flaubert did not have, at the very height of his activity, a comprehension of the most obscure origins of his own history. He once wrote a remarkable sentence: ‘You are doubtless like myself, you all have the same terrifying and tedious depths’—les mêmes profondeurs terribles et ennuyeuses. What could be a better formula for the whole world of psychoanalysis, in which one makes terrifying discoveries, yet which always tediously come to the same thing? His awareness of these depths was not an intellectual one. He later wrote that he often had fulgurating intuitions, akin to a dazzling bolt of lightning in which one simultaneously sees nothing and sees everything. Each time they went out, he tried to retrace the paths revealed to him by this blinding light, stumbling and falling in the subsequent darkness.
For me, these formulations define the relationship which Flaubert had with what is ordinarily called the unconscious, and what I would call a total absence of knowledge, but a real comprehension. I distinguish here between comprehension and intellection: there can be intellection of a practical conduct, but only comprehension of a passion. What I call le vécu—lived experience—is precisely the ensemble of the dialectical process of psychic life, in so far as this process is obscure to itself because it is a constant totalization, thus necessarily a totalization which cannot be conscious of what it is. One can be conscious of an external totalization, but one cannot be conscious of a totalization which also totalizes consciousness. ‘Lived experience’, in this sense, is perpetually susceptible of comprehension, but never of knowledge. Taking it as a point of departure, one can know certain psychic phenomena by concepts, but not this experience itself. The highest form of comprehension of lived experience can forge its own language—which will always be inadequate, and yet which will often have the metaphorical structure of the dream itself. Comprehension of a dream occurs when a man can express it in a language which is itself dreamt. Lacan says that the unconscious is structured like a language. I would say that the language which expresses it has the structure of a dream. In other words, comprehension of the unconscious in most cases never achieves explicit expression. Flaubert constantly speaks of l’indisable, which means the ‘unsayable’, only the word does not exist in French, it should be l’indicible (perhaps it was a regional usage in Flaubert’s time, but in any case it is not the normal word). The ‘unsayable’, however, was something very definite for him. When he gave his autobiography to his mistress at the age of 25, he wrote to her: ‘You will suspect all the unsayable,’ Which did not mean family secrets or anything like that. Of course, he hated his elder brother, but this is not what he was talking about. He meant precisely this kind of comprehension of oneself which cannot be named and which perpetually escapes one.
The conception of ‘lived experience’ marks my change since L’Etre et Le Néant. My early work was a rationalist philosophy of consciousness. It was all very well for me to dabble in apparently non-rational processes in the individual, the fact remains that L’Etre et Le Néant is a monument of rationality. But in the end it becomes an irrationalism, because it cannot account rationally for those processes which are ‘below’ consciousness and which are also rational, but lived as irrationall. Today, the notion of ‘lived experience’ represents an effort to preserve that presence to itself which seems to me indispensable for the existence of any psychic fact, while at the same time this presence is so opaque and blind before itself that it is also an absence from itself. Lived experience is always simultaneously present to itself and absent from itself. In developing this notion, I have tried to surpass the traditional psychoanalytic ambiguity of psychic facts which are both teleological and mechanical, by showing that every psychic fact involves an intentionality which aims at something, while among them a certain number can only exist if they are comprehended, but neither named nor known. The latter include what I call the ‘stress’ of a neurosis. A neurosis is in the first instance a specific wound, a defective structure which is a certain way of living a childhood. But this is only the initial wound: it is then patched up and bandaged by a system which covers and soothes the wound, and which then like anti-bodies in certain cases, suddenly does something abominable to the organism. The unity of this system is the neurosis. The work of its ‘stress’ is intentional, but it cannot be seized as such without disappearing. It is precisely for this reason that if it is transferred into the domain of knowledge, by analytic treatment, it can no longer be reproduced in the same manner.
There is an obvious question raised by your work on Flaubert. You have already written a study of Baudelaire—
—A very inadequate, an extremly bad one—
Then a long book on Genet, after that an essay on Tintoretto and then an autobiography, Les Mots. After this succession of writings, what will be the methodological novelty of the book on Flaubert? Why exactly did you decide to return once again to the project of explaining a life?
In the Question de Méthode, I discussed the different mediations and procedures which could permit an advance in our knowledge of men if they were taken together. In fact, everyone knows and everyone admits, for instance, that psychoanalysis and Marxism should be able to find the mediations necessary to allow a combination of the two. Everyone adds, of course, that psychoanalysis is not primary, but that correctly coupled and rationalized with Marxism, it can be useful.
Likewise, everyone says that there are American sociological notions which have a certain validity, and that sociology in general should be used—not, of course, the Russian variety which is no more than an enumeration or nomenclature. Everyone agrees on all this. Everyone in fact says it—but who has tried to do it?
I myself was in general only repeating these irreproachable maxims in Question de Méthode. The idea of the book on Flaubert was to abandon these theoretical disquisitions, because they were ultimately getting us nowhere, and to try to give a concrete example of how it might be done. The result can look after itself. Even if it is a failure, it can thereby give others the idea of redoing it, better. For the question the book seeks to answer is: how shall I study a man with all these methods, and how in this study will these methods condition each other and find their respective place?
You feel you did not have these keys when you wrote Saint Genet, for example?
No, I did not have them all. It is obvious that the study of the conditioning of Genet at the level of institutions and of history is inadequate—very, very inadequate. The main lines of the interpretation, that Genet was an orphan of Public Assistance, who was sent to a peasant home and who owned nothing, remain true, doubtless. But all the same, this happened in 1925 or so and there was a whole context to this life which is quite absent. The Public Assistance, a foundling represents a specific social phenomenon, and anyway Genet is a product of the 20th century; yet none of this is registered in the book.
Whereas today I would like the reader to feel the presence of Flaubert the whole time; my ideal would be that the reader simultaneously feels, comprehends and knows the personality of Flaubert, totally as an individual and yet totally as an expression of his time. In other words, Flaubert can only be understood by his difference from his neighbours.
Do you see what I mean by this? For example, there were a considerable number of writers who elaborated analogous theories at the time and produced more or less valid works inspired by them, Leconte de Lisle or the Goncourts, for example: it is necessary to try to study how they were all determined to produce this particular vision, and how Flaubert was determined similarly yet otherwise, and saw it in another fashion. My aim is to try to demonstrate the encounter between the development of the person, as psychoanalysis has shown it to us, and the development of history. For at a certain moment, an individual in his very deepest and most intimate conditioning, by the family, can fulfil a historical role. Robespierre could be taken as an example, for instance. But it would be impossible to pursue such a study of him, because there are no materials for doing so. What would be necessary to know is what was the encounter of the revolution which created the Committee of Public Safety, and the son of Monsieur and Madame Robespierre of Arras.
This is the theoretical aim of your present work. But why exactly the choice of Flaubert?
Because he is the imaginary. With him, I am at the border, the barrier of dreams.
There have been writers or politicians who have left a certain work and who could equally well provide the material for such a study—
In theory, yes. There were a number of reasons, however, which led me to select Flaubert. Firstly, to give the strictly circumstantial cause of this selection: Flaubert is one of the very rare historical or literary personages who have left behind so much information about themselves. There are no less than 13 volumes of correspondence, each of 600 pages or so. He often wrote letters to several persons the same day, with slight variations between them, which are often very amusing. Apart from this, there are numerous reports and witnesses of him; the Goncourt brothers kept a diary and saw Flaubert very frequently, so that we see him from the outside through the Goncourts and we also have a record of what he said to others about himself, recorded by the Goncourts—not an altogether trustworthy source, of course, since they were rancorous imbeciles in many ways. Nevertheless, there are many facts in their Journal. Besides this, of course, there is a complete correspondence with George Sand, letters of George Sand on Flaubert, memoirs of him, and so on. All this is completely circumstantial, but it is of great importance.
Secondly, however, Flaubert represents for me the exact opposite of my own conception of literature: a total disengagement and a certain idea of form, which is not that which I admire. For example, Stendhal is a writer whom I greatly prefer to Flaubert, while Flaubert is probably much more important for the development of the novel than Stendhal. I mean that Stendhal is much finer and stronger. One can give oneself completely to him—his style is acceptable, his heroes are sympathetic, his vision of the world is true and the historical conception behind it is very acute. There is nothing like this in Flaubert. Only, Flaubert is much more significant than Stendhal for the history of the novel. If Stendhal had not existed, it would still have been possible to go straight from Laclos to Balzac. Whereas, let us say, Zola or the Nouveau Roman are inconceivable without Flaubert. Stendhal is greatly loved by the French, but his influence on the novel is minimal. Flaubert’s influence by contrast is immense, and for this reason alone it is important to study him. Given that, he began to fascinate me precisely because I saw him in every way as the contrary of myself. I found myself wondering: ‘How was he possible?’ For I then rediscovered another dimension of Flaubert, which is besides the very source of his talent. I was used to reading Stendhal and company, where one is in complete accord with the hero, whether he is Julien Sorel or Fabrice.
Reading Flaubert one is plunged into persons with whom one is in complete disaccord, who are irksome. Sometimes one feels with them, and then somehow they suddenly rejects one’s sympathy and one finds oneself once again antagonistic to them. Obviously it was this that fascinated me, because it made me curious. This is precisely Flaubert’s art. It is clear that he detested himself, and when he speaks of his principal characters, he has a terrible attitude of sadism and masochism towards them: he tortures them because they are himself, and also to show that other people and the world torture him. He also tortures them because they are not him and he is anyway vicious and sadistic and wants to torture others. His unfortunate characters have very little luck, submitted to all this.
At the same time, Flaubert writes from within his characters and is always speaking of himself in a certain fashion. He thus succeeds in speaking of himself in a way that is unique. This type of discomfited, refused confession, with its self-hatred, its constant reversion to things he comprehends without knowing, wanting to be completely lucid and yet always grating—Flaubert’s testimony about himself is something exceptional, which had never been seen before and has not been seen since. This is another motive for studying him.
The third reason for choosing Flaubert is that he represents a sequel to L’Imaginaire. You may remember that in my very early book L’Imaginaire I tried to show that an image is not a sensation reawakened, or reworked by the intellect, or even a former perception altered and attenuated by knowledge, but is something entirely different—an absent reality, focussed in its absence through what I called an analngon: that is to say, an object which serves as an analogy and is traversed by an intention. For example, when you are going to sleep, the little dots in your eyes—phosphenes—may serve as an analogy for every kind of oneiric or hypnagogic image. Between waking and sleeping, some people see vague shapes pass, which are phosphenes through which they focus on an imagined person or a thing. In L’Lmaginaire, I tried to prove that imaginary objects—images—are an absence. In my book on Flaubert, I am studying imaginary persons—people who like Flaubert act out roles. A man is like a leak of gas, escaping into the imaginary. Flaubert did so perpetually; yet he also had to see reality because he hated it, so there is the whole question of the relationship between the real and the imaginary which I try to study in his life and work.
Finally, via all this, it is possible to ask the question: what was the imaginary social world of the dreamy bourgeoisie of 1848? This is an intriguing subject in itself. Between 1830 and 1840 Flaubert was in a Lycée in Rouen, and all his tests speak of his fellow-pupils there as contemptible, mediocre bourgeois. It so happens, however, that there were five years of violent, historic fights in the lycées of that time! After the revolution of 1830, there were boys who launched political struggles in the schools, who fought and were defeated. The reading of the romantics, of which Flaubert speaks so often as a challenge to their parents, is only explicable in this perspective: when these youths finally become blasés, they have been reciperated as ‘ironic’ bourgeois, and they have failed. The extraordinary thing is that Flaubert does not say a word about any of this. He simply describes the boys who surround him as if they were future adults—in other words, abject. He writes: ‘I saw defects which would become vices, needs which would become manias, follies which would become crimes—in short, children would become men.’ The only history of the school for him was the passage from childhood to maturity. The reality is, however, that this history was that of a bourgeoisie seized with shame at itself in its sons, of the defeat of these sons and thereby the suppression of its shame. The end result of this history will be the massacre of 1848.
Before 1830, the bourgeoisie was hiding under its blankets. When it finally emerged, its sons cried ‘Bravo! We are going to declare the Republic,’ but their fathers found they needed an eiderdown after all. Louis-Philippe became king. The sons persuaded themselves their fathers had been duped, and continued the struggle. The result was an uproar in the schools: in vain, they were expelled. In 1831, when LouisPhilippe dismisses Lafayette and the road to reaction is open, there were boys of 13 or 14 in Flaubert’s school, who calmly refused to go to confession, having decided that this was an excellent pretext for a confrontation with the authorities, since after all the bourgeoisie was still officially Voltairean. Confession was a survival from Louis XVIII and Charles X, and raised awkward questions about compulsory religious instruction, which might eventually get as far as the Chamber of Deputies. I take off my hat to these boys of 14 who planned this strategy, knowing very well that they would be expelled from the school. The chaplain descended on them—‘Confess!’ ‘No!’—then another functionary— ‘No, No, No!’—they were taken to the principal and thrown out of the school. Whereupon there was a gigantic uproar in the whole college, which was what they had hoped for. The fourth year class threw rotten eggs at the vice-principal, and two more boys were expelled. Then the day-boys of the class met at dawn and took an oath to avenge their comrades. The next day at six in the morning, the boarders opened the doors to them. Together, they seized and occupied the building. Already, in 1831! From their fortress there, they bombarded the Academic Council which was deliberating in another building within reach of their windows.
The principal was meanwhile throwing himself at the feet of the older pupils, imploring them not to solidarize with the occupation—successfully. Eventually, the fourth year class did not achieve the reinstatement of their comrades, but the authorities had to promise that there would be no sanctions against them for the occupation. Three days later, they found they had been tricked: the college was closed for two months. Exactly like today!
The next year, when they came back, they were naturally raging and there was constant turbulence in the Lycée, This was the time in which Flaubert lived, and yet he did not experience it like that. He wrote a great deal about his childhood and youth—but there is not a single text which refers to this history. In fact, what happened, of course, was that he lived the same evolution of this generation in his own way. He was unaffected by this violent episode and yet he arrived at the same result by a different route somewhat later. The philosophy teacher in the school fell ill, and a substitute took over for him. The pupils decided the substitute was an incompetent and made life impossible for him. The principal tried to victimize two or three, and the whole class solidarized with them: Flaubert now wrote their collective letter to the principal, denouncing the quality of the course and the threats of punishment. The upshot was that he and two or three others were expelled from the school. The meaning of the protest this time is very clear: Flaubert and his class-mates were young bourgeois demanding a proper bourgeois education—‘Our fathers are paying enough, after all’. The evolution of a generation and of a class are manifest in this second episode. These different experiences produce a bitter literature on the bourgeoisie and then this generation resigns itself to becoming merely ironic—another way of being bourgeois.
Why have you opted for biography and the theatre in recent years, and abandoned the novel? Is it that you think Marxism and psychoanalysis have rendered the novel as a form impossible, by the weight of their concepts?
I have often asked myself that question. It is, in fact, true that there is no technique that can account for a character in a novel as one can account for a real person, who has existed, by means of a Marxist or psychoanalytic interpretation. But if an author has recourse to these two systems within a novel, without an adequate formal device for doing so, the novel disappears. These devices are lacking, and I do not know if they are possible.
You think that the existence of Marxism and of psychoanalysis prevents any novelist from writing, so to speak, naïvely today?
By no means. But if he does so, the novel will all the same be classified as ‘naïve’. In other words, a natural universe of the novel will not exist, only a certain specific type of novel—the ‘spontaneous’, ‘naïve’ novel. There are excellent examples of the latter, but the author who writes them has to make a conscious decision to ignore these interpretative techniques. Thereby he necessarily becomes less naïve. There is another type of novel today in which the work is conceived as a sort of infernal machine—fake novels like those of Gombrowicz for example. Gombrowicz is aware of psychoanalysis, and of Marxism and many other things, but he remains sceptical about them, and hence constructs objects which destroy themselves in their very act of construction— creating a model for what might be a novel with an analytic and materialist foundation.
Why have you personally stopped writing novels?
Because I have felt no urge to do so. Writers have always more or less chosen the imaginary. They have a need for a certain ration of fiction. Writing on Flaubert is enough for me by way of fiction—it might indeed be called a novel. Only I would like people to say that it was a true novel. I try to achieve a certain level of comprehension of Flaubert by means of hypotheses. Thus I use fiction—guided and controlled, but nonetheless fiction—to explore why, let us say, Flaubert wrote one thing on the 15th March and the exact opposite on the 21st March, to the same correspondent, without worrying about the contradiction. My hypotheses are in this sense a sort of invention of the personage.
You have reproached a book like The Children of Sanchez for not being a literary work because the people in it speak a language like that of all of us when we are not writers. You think such works lack invention?
The Children of Sanchez is not a literary work, but it renders a mass of literary works redundant. Why write a novel on its characters or their milieu? They tell us much more by themselves, with a much greater self-understanding and eloquence. The book is not literature because there is no quest for a form that is also a meaning in it: for me the two—form and meaning—are always linked. There is no production of an object, a constructed object.
You continue to write plays?
Yes, because plays are something else again. For me the theatre is essentially a myth. Take the example of a petty-bourgeois and his wife who quarrel with each other the whole time. If you tape their disputes, you will record not only the two of them, but the petty-bourgeoisie and its world, what society has made of it, and so on. Two or three such studies and any possible novel on the life of a petty-bourgeois couple would be outclassed. By contrast, the relationship between man and woman as we see it in Strindberg’s Dance of Death will never be outclassed. The subject is the same, but taken to the level of myth. The playwright presents to men the eidos of their daily existence: their own life in such a way that they see it as if externally. This was the genius of Brecht, indeed. Brecht would have protested violently if anyone said to him that his plays were myths. Yet what else is Mother Courage—an anti-myth that despite itself becomes a myth?
You discussed the theatre with Brecht?
I saw Brecht three or four times in a political context, but we never had a chance to discuss the theatre. I admire Brecht’s plays very much, but I think that what Brecht said about them is not always true. His theory of Entfremdung—distanciation—is one thing: the actual relationship between the public and his characters is another. The blind and deaf girl in Mother Courage calls to the people when she falls from the roof, dying. This is a scene of pathos, and yet it is precisely a passage of the play where Brecht most wants to establish a contestation and recoil from the drama. Mother Courage herself is an anti-heroine who—unavoidably, by her very mystification—becomes a heroine. The Caucasian Chalk Circle presents the same paradox—scenes such as the flight of the servant or the adjudication of the child, which despite all Brecht’s efforts are extremely moving in the most classical tradition of the theatre. Brecht was tremendously astute in his use of theatre, but he could not always control the final result of his writing.
The Critique de la Raison Dialectique appears to be constructed on the idea that there is a fundamental homogeneity between the individual and history: the central theme of the book is the reversible relationships—interversions—between the individual, worked matter, the group, the series, the practico-inert, collectives. To adopt its vocabulary, your formal aim is to show how the totalising acts of every individual are totalized in exteriority by others and become other to their agents, just as groups become other to themselves through serialization. The Critique deals in a very systematic way with that aspect of history which presents itself as alienation and degradation of intentional projects, whether by individuals or groups, in their encounter with materiality and alterity, in the world of scarcity. There is, however, another aspect of history which is not accounted for by the Critique. Social facts are not simply a totalization in exteriority of the totalizing acts of a multiplicity of individuals and groups, which may during certain privileged moments achieve an apocalyptic sovereignty, but which normally fall into the practico-ineri. They have an intrinsic order of their own, which is not deducible from the criss-crossing of innumerable individual totalizations. The most obvious example of this is language—which can in no way be described as a simple totalization of all the speech-acts of linguistic agents. The subject who speaks never totalizes linguistic laws by his words. Language has its own intelligibility as a system which appears heterogeneous to the subject. Can the themes of ‘totalization’ and the ‘practico-inert’ ever account for the emergence of ordered social structures, not merely random alienation of subjective projects?
But there is totalization in language. You cannot say a single sentence which does not refer, by its elements, to opposites. Thereby the whole of language, as a system of differential meanings, is present in its very absence, as linguists themselves admit. Every sentence is a levy on the entire resources of speech, for words only exist by their opposition to each other. There is thus certainly totalization in language.
The question is whether there is only totalization? There are two central examples in the Critique of a multiplicity of totalizations which fall into the practico-inert and become an alien power denaturing the intentions of their agents. One is that of different Chinese peasants cutting down trees to enlarge their cultivation of land, thus creating erosion, which thereby causes floods which then ruin their lands. The other is of the impact of gold in 16th-century Spain—whereby the individual decisions of each single producer to raise prices caused an uncontrollable general inflation which eventually resulted in the collective impoverishment of all of them. These two examples do not have the same type of intelligibility—
I agree. The deforestation of the Chinese peasants is a product of individuals, each acting on their own, directly on nature, in ignorance of the others. They are not united by any collective object, and it is only gradually that the end-result of their acts imposes itself on them. The counter-finality of these peasants is cultural, but it concerns above all the relationship of a multiplicity of individuals with nature. Whereas the impact of gold in Spain presupposes money, which is a social institution. Money has nothing natural about it, it is a conventional system in some ways very similar to language. Thus gold is a preeminently social fact. I therefore am perfectly in agreement that there is a specific reality of social facts. This reality implies precisely that every totalization of the individual in relation to this reality either fails, is deviated by it or is a negative totalization. When I speak, I never say completely what I want to say and I often do not know what I say, given that my words are robbed from me and revealed to me as other than what I intended. But the important thing is that these social facts are, in spite of everything, the product of the social activity of collective ensembles. I will be discussing this in the second volume of the Critique. Language exists only as a convention.
But where does the order of this convention come from? To ask the same question in a different way: by the end of the Critique the reader has been taken through all the different reversible relationships of individuals, groups, series and the practico-inert, which constitute for you ‘the formal elements of any history’. Yet from this perspective there seems to be no reason why history should not then be an arbitrary chaos of inter-blocking projects, a sort of colossal traffic-jam?
There are a number of reasons. The first is that accumulation exists. There are crucial domains where accumulation occurs: science, capital, goods—which thereby produce a history: change. This is something different from a mere transition. There are periods which are transitions, until something is invented that changes. For example, the whole feudal period of the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries is a perpetual turmoil: there were events everywhere, yet there was no emergence from the Middle Ages because the elements for doing so did not exist. Then, one day, a certain number of processes coincided, social and economic facts like the indebtedness of the lords, the ruin of the Church, the change in the nature of Catholicism, the peasant revolts, scientific discoveries, and a spiral development of history resulted. Science, of course, in a sense advanced in a straight line through all its conversions, hesitations and errors. These mistakes and confusions might be classified as ‘subjective’—they have little importance in the development of science. On the other hand, they whirl about every level of science and deform its discoveries and practices, changing them into other than themselves: a discovery made because of war in time of war will serve in peace, while a discovery in time of peace will serve for war. Simultaneously, there are whole plateaux where the class struggle changes because there is a new mode of production. I have not discussed any of this in the first volume of the Critique, both because I believe in the general schema provided by Marx and because I intend to study it at the level of history proper. For it is at the level of history that one should determine to what extent there is or is not progress, to what extent progress exists only where there is accumulation, and whether it produces in its train total modifications which are not necessarily progressive.
What is going to be the architecture of the second volume of the Critique?
I will simply try to show the dialectical intelligibility of a movement of historical temporalization.
The movement. The difference between the first and second volume is this: the first is an abstract work where I show the possibilities of exchange, degradation, the practico-inert, series, collectives, recurrence and so on. It is concerned only with the theoretical possibilities of their combinations. The object of the second volume is history itself. But I know no other history than our own, so the question ‘What is history?’ becomes ‘What is our history?’—the history in which Mahomet was born and not one in which he never lived. It is irrelevant to wonder whether there are other histories in other galaxies. Perhaps there are, but we know nothing of them, and they consequently have no importance for us. Thus all the notions which will emerge from the second volume will be rigorously applied to our own history; my aim will be to prove that there is a dialectical intelligibility of the singular. For ours is a singular history. It is determined by the forces of production and the relations of production, their correspondences and their conflicts. It is possible that in completely primitive societies there exist the ‘global facts’ of which Mauss speaks—a kind of undifferentiated social conditioning. But even if this were so, it is not the history that I will be studying. What I will seek to show is the dialectical intelligibility of that which is not universalisable.
It is still very difficult to see how a multiplicity of individual acts can ever give birth to social structures which have their own laws, discontinuous from the acts which for you formally constitute a historical dialectic? A tribe can speak a language for centuries and then be discovered by an anthropologist who can decipher its phonological laws, which have been forever unknown to the totality of the subjects speaking the language. How can these objective laws be deduced merely from words spoken?
I believe that all the same language is a totalized and detotalized result of the ensemble of human activities during a certain time. Language is imposed on each of us as a practico-inert.
The connotation of ‘practico-inert’ is precisely that of a brute, random mass alien to human agents. The problem is, how does this mass happen to have a rigorous structure—the laws of grammar or, more fundamentally, the relations of production? These structures are never intentional objects—they are heterogeneous to the historical acts of individuals?
There is a historical problem of the passage from non-language to language in early human communities: it is impossible to reconstruct this passage, but probably it was accomplished within certain early institutions. For language sustains institutions, institutions are a language, and language is itself an institution. From the moment that a limited system of signs exists, which has an institutional character, both invented by the group and already dividing the group, language can change men into collectives. I have tried to explain this in the Critique. An institution or collective object is always a product of the activity of the group in matter, whether verbal matter or physicochemical matter, and is thereby sealed and surpassed by an inertia which separates the group and imposes itself on it as the instituted and sacred. The subjective here capsizes into the objective and the objective into the subjective: the result is an instituted object. Thus I am in complete agreement that social facts have their own structures and laws that dominate individuals, but I only see in this the reply of worked matter to the agents who work it.
Why is this ‘reply’ a coherent discourse?
For me the fact of being worked does not endow matter with a system, but the fact of becoming inert converts work into a system.
Not everything that is inert is a system.
Structures are created by activity which has no structure, but suffers its results as a structure.
How can individual acts result in ordered structures, and not a tangled labyrinth—unless you believe in a sort of pre-established harmony between them?
You are forgetting the level of power and therefore of generality. If a decision is taken at a certain level of political or religious power, an objective unity is given by the project at that level. What then happens is that others deviate and deform the project, but they simultaneously create something else by their work: other structures with their own internal relations which constitute a queer kind of object, but a potent and significant one. In the last chapter of the Critique, entitled ‘Towards History’, I started to discuss this problem. I tried to argue that an object created by a plurality of different or antagonistic groups is nevertheless, in the very moment of their shock against each other, intelligible. In the second volume, I was going to take the elementary example of a battle, which remains intelligible after the confusion of the two armies engaged in combat in it. From there I planned to develop a study of the objects constituted by entire collectivities with their own interests. In particular, I want to analyze the example of Stalin to see how the objects which constituted Stalinist institutions were created through the ensemble of relationships between groups and within groups in Soviet society, and through the relationship of all these to Stalin and of Stalin to them. Finally, I was going to end by studying the unity of objects in a society completely rent asunder by class struggle, and considering several classes and their actions to show how these objects were completely deviated and always represented a detotalization while at the same time preserving a determinate intelligibility. Once one has reached this, one has reached history. Hence I had the embryo of an answer to the question you have been asking me. There is an institutional order which is necessarily—unless we are to believe in God the father or an organicist mythology—the product of masses of men constituting a social unity and which at the same time is radically distinct from all of them, becoming an implacable demand and an ambiguous means of communication and non-communication between them. Aesop once said that language is both. The same is true of institutions. Indeed, I would like to write a study of work and technology to show exactly what happens to material in industry, how it becomes an inhuman image of man, by its demands. For I believe that the existence of different ethics in different epochs is due to matter: it is because of inert, inanimate objects that there are demands in us. A demand is fixed and inert: a duty has no life in it, it is always immobile and imbecile, because whenever anyone tries to do his so-called duty, he always finds himself in opposition to others. This contradiction ultimately derives from the demands of materiality in us. To sum up what I have been saying in a sentence: my aim in the second volume of the Critique was precisely a study of the paradoxical object which is an institutional ensemble that is perpetually detotalized.
There is another dimension of the Critique which must be striking for any new reader of it today. The book in some respects appears an anticipation of two of the major historical events of recent ears, the May Revolt in France and they Cultural devolution in China. There are long analyses of the dialectical relationship between class, cadres, trade-unions and political party during factory occupations, taking 1936 as a model, which often seem to prefigure the trajectory of the French proletariat in May 1968. At the same time, there is a passage where you evoke the official parades in Tien An Minh Square in the Pekin of the early sixties as a sort of pyramidal ‘mineralization of man’, whereby a bureaucratic order manipulates dispersed series beneath it to confer on them a false semblance of groups. Do you then today interpret the Cultural Revolution as an attempt to reverse the deterioration of the Chinese Revolution into a set of bureaucratically institutionalized groups manipulating passive masses, by a sort of gigantic ‘apocalypse’ throughout China which recreates ‘fused groups’ such as once made the Long March and the People’s War—to use the language of the Critique?
I should say that I regard myself as very inadequately informed about the Cultural Revolution. The specific level of the phenomenon is that of ideology, culture and politics—in other words, superstructures which are the higher instances of any dialectical scale. But what happened at the level of infrastructures in China which led to the initiation of this movement in the superstructures? There must have been determinate contradictions at the base of the Chinese socialist economy which produced the movement for a return to something like a perpetual fused group. It is possible that the origins of the Cultural Revolution are to be found in the conflicts over the Great Leap Forward, and the investment policies undertaken at that time: Japanese Marxists have often maintained this. But I nevertheless must confess that I have not succeeded in understanding the causes of the phenomenon in its totality. The idea of a perpetual apocalypse is naturally very attractive—but I am convinced that it is not exactly this, and that the infrastructural reasons for the Cultural Revolution must be sought.
You do not think that the Sino-Soviet conflict was a crucial determinant? Part of the Chinese leadership appears to have consciously been determined to avoid any reproduction of the present state of the USSR in China. Is it necessary to assume insurmountable contradictions within the Chinese economy to explain the Cultural Revolution?
I certainly do not think that the Cultural Revolution is in any way a mechanical reflection of infrastructural contradictions: but I think that to understand its total meaning one should be able to reconstruct the precise moment of the historical process and of the economy at which it exploded. It is perfectly clear, for instance, that Mao was virtually marginalized for a certain time and that he has now reassumed power. This change is undoubtedly linked to internal Chinese conflicts, which go back at least to the Great Leap Forward.
Equally striking are the contradictions within the Cultural Revolution. There is a central discordance between the unleashing of mass initiatives and the cult of the leader. On the one side, there is the perpetual maintenance of the fused group with unlimited personal initiatives within it, with the possibility of writing anything in big-character posters, even ‘Chou En Lai to the gallows’— which did, in fact happen in Pekin; on the other side, there is the fetichization of the little red book, read aloud in waiting rooms, in airplanes, in railway stations, read before others who repeat it in chorus, read by taxi-drivers who stop their cab to read it to passengers—a hallucinating collective catechism which resounds from one end of China to the other.
Your own analysis of the fundamental reason for the degradation of groups into series in the Critique is that scarcity ultimately renders inevitable the fall of any collective project into the practico-inert. China remains a very poor country, with a low level of development of productive forces. Your own account of the reign of scarcity leads to the conclusion that it is impossible to abolish bureaucracy in such a country; any attempt to overcome bureaucratic degradation of the revolution will inevitably be profoundly marked by the objective limits imposed by scarcity. This line of argument would explain the bureaucratic safety-rails, whether institutional like the army or ideological like the cult of personality, which trammel mass initiative in China?
It is evident that completely untrammelled initiatives can lead to a sort of madness. Because the free and anarchic development of the individual —not the social individual of the future, but the free practical organism of today—may not endanger his own reason, but can endanger a society. But to insist on his total freedom within a fused group and at the same time to put pebbles in his head, called the Thoughts of Mao, is not to create a whole man. The two halves of the process are in complete contradiction.
Perhaps the paradox of a cultural revolution is that it is ultimately impossible in China, where it was invented, but is somewhat more possible in the advanced countries of the West?
I think that is correct. With one qualification: is a cultural revolution possible without making the revolution? French youth during May wanted a cultural revolution—what was missing for them to achieve one? The ability to make a real revolution. In other words, a revolution which is no way initially cultural, but is the seizure of power by violent class struggle. Which is not to say that the idea of cultural revolution in France was merely a mirage: on the contrary, it expressed a radical contestation of every established value of the university and society, a way of looking at them as if they had already perished. It is very important that this contestation be maintained.
What were the main lessons of the May Revolt for you?
I have always been convinced that the origins of May lie in the Vietnamese Revolution. For the French students who unleashed the process of May, the Vietnamese war was not merely a question of taking the side of the National Liberation Front or the people or Vietnam against us imperialism. The fundamental impact of war on European or us militants was its enlargement of the field of the possible. It had previously seemed impossible that the Vietnamese could resist successfully such an enormous military machine and win. Yet that is what they did and by doing so they completely changed the horizon of French students, among others: they now knew that there were possibilities that remained unknown. Not that everything was possible, but that one can only know something is impossible once one has tried it and failed. This was a profound discovery, rich in its eventual consequences and revolutionary in the West.
Today, over a year later, it is clear that to a certain extent we have discovered the impossible. In particular, as long as the French Communist Party is the largest conservative party in France, and as long as it has the confidence of the workers, it will be impossible to make the free revolution that was missed in May. Which only means that it is necessary to pursue the struggle, however protracted it may be, with the same persistence as the Vietnamese, who after all are continuing to fight and continuing to win.
May was not a revolution: it did not destroy the bourgeois state. To make the revolution next time, organization will be necessary to co-ordinate and lead the struggle. What sort of political organization do you judge to be the appropriate instrument today?
It is obvious that anarchism leads nowhere, today as yesterday. The central question is whether in the end the only possible type of political organization is that which we know in the shape of the present CP’s: hierarchical division between leadership and rank-and-file, communications and instructions proceeding from above downwards only, isolation of each cell from every other, vertical powers of dissolution and discipline, separation of workers and intellectuals? This pattern developed from a form of organization which was born in clandestinity in the time of the Tsars. What are the objective justifications of its existence in the West today? Its purpose here appears merely to ensure an authoritarian centralism which excludes any democratic practice. Of course, in a civil war situation, a militarized discipline is necessary. But does a proletarian party have to resemble the present-day Communist Parties? Is it not possible to conceive of a type of political organization where men are not barred and stifled? Such an organization would contain different currents, and would be capable of closing itself in moments of danger, to reopen thereafter.
It is always true, of course, that to fight something one must change oneself into it; in other words one must become its true opposite and not merely other than it. A revolutionary party must necessarily reproduce—up to a certain limit—the centralization and coercion of the bourgeois state which it is its mission to overthrow. However, the whole problem—the history of our century is there to prove it—is that once a party dialectically undergoes this ordeal, it may become arrested there. The result is then that it has enormous difficulty in ever escaping from the bureaucratic rut which it initially accepted to make the revolution against a bureaucratic-military machine. From that moment on, only a cultural revolution against the new order can prevent a degradation of it. It is not a benevolent reform that is occurring in China today, it is the violent destruction of a whole system of privilege. Yet we know nothing of what the future will be in China. The danger of a bureaucratic deterioration will be powerfully present in any Western country, if we succeed in making the revolution: that is absolutely inevitable, since both external imperialist encirclement and the internal class struggle will continue to exist. The idea of an instant and total liberation is a utopia. We can already foresee some of the limits and constraints of a future revolution. But he who takes these as an excuse not to make the revolution and who fails to struggle for it now, is simply a counter-revolutionary.
Abroad, you are often seen as classical product of French university culture. The university system in which you were educated and made your early career, was the exact target of the first explosion which set off the upheaval of May. What is your judgment of it now?
It is certainly true that I am a product of this system, and I am very aware of it: although I hope I am not only that. When I was a student, only a very small elite got to university, and if one had the additional ‘luck’ to get into the Ecole Normale, one had every material advantage. In a sense the French university system formed me more than its professors, because in my time the latter, with only one or two exceptions, were very mediocre. But the system, above all the Ecole Normale, I accepted as absolutely natural: son and grandson of petty-bourgeois intellectuals, it never occurred to me to question it. The lectures of the cours magistral seemed idiotic to us, but only because the teachers who gave it had nothing to tell us. Later, others saw that the lecture course itself was irredeemable. We merely abstained from ever going to the Sorbonne: only once, when law students threatened to invade it, did we go to the lectures there—otherwise never. Most of the Ecole Normale students of my time were very proud if they became agregés, for instance (although there were a few who thought the hierarchy of agregés and licenciés was monstruous). Nizan was an exception, of course. He detested the Ecole Normale, for very good reasons—its class function in creating a privileged élite. Although he was academically ‘successful’, he never, never fitted into the system. By the third year he was in such a state of malaise that he escaped to Aden. Of course, this was related to neurotic problems in his personal history, but the fundamental fact was that he could not breathe within these institutions designed to perpetuate a monopoly of knowledge.
What is your view of a correct Marxist practice within the institutions of bourgeois culture—the educational system—after May?
Is a positive revolutionary culture conceivable today? For me, this is the most difficult problem posed by your question. My frank opinion is that everything within bourgeois culture that will be surpassed by a revolutionary culture will nevertheless ultimately also be preserved by it. I do not believe that a revolutionary culture will forget Rimbaud, Baudelaire or Flaubert, merely because they were very bourgeois and not exactly friends of the people. They will have their place in any future socialist culture, but it will be a new place determined by new needs and relations. They will not be great principal values, but they will be part of a tradition reassessed by a different praxis and a different culture.
But how can they be reassessed today, when a revolutionary culture does not exist? They have only one place within existing society—the site assigned to them by bourgeois culture. What is the ‘correct use’ of Rimbaud for a young socialist militant in Vincennes or Nanterre? The question is unanswerable. It is true that a certain number of university intellectuals of an older generation became revolutionaries within a society that dispensed this culture to them. But the situation has changed radically since then. To take only the material conditions of a university education: in my time an orthodox lecture course was trundled out to perhaps 15 or 20 people. It was less shocking, because it could formally be contested: a student could interrupt and say he disagreed, and the lecturer would tolerate this because it hid the completely authoritarian character of the whole course. Today, there are 100 or 200 students where there were once 15. There is no longer any chance of this. Where it was once possible to turn bourgeois culture against itself, showing that Liberty, Equality and Fraternity had become their opposites, today the only possibility is to be against bourgeois culture. For the traditional system is collapsing. The Baccalaureat in France is something incredible, in its antiquation. In Rouen-Le Havre recently, the subject of the philosophy paper was: ‘Epictetus said to a disciple: “Live Hidden”. Comment’. Can you imagine—giving a question like that to school-children of sixteen in this day and age! Not only the reference is outrageous, of course, 10 per cent to 20 per cent of the candidates thought that Vis Caché (Live Hidden) was Vices Caches (Hidden Vices), imagining perhaps that this was ancient orthography, and interpreted the quotation to mean: ‘Hide your Vices’. They then developed at length the idea of Epictetus along the lines ‘If you have vices, satisfy them, but secretly.’ The funniest, and saddest thing of all is that they approved the formula of Epictetus! ‘For it is like that in society, one can have a vice, but one should practise it in solitude.’ Innocent answers, showing what bourgeois morality is in fact like; pitiful answers because these pupils obviously thought, ‘Epictetus must be famous, if I criticize him I might get 4 out of 20 and fail, the only thing to do is to agree with him.’ There is no relationship, no contact whatever between these young people and their teachers. Bourgeois culture in France is destroying itself. Thus for the moment, regardless of the eventual future, I believe that a radical negation of the existing culture is the only possible option for young militants—a negation which will often take the form of violent contestation.
Are you going to write sequel to Les Mots? What are your future plans?
No, I do not think that a sequel to Les Mots would be of much interest. The reason why I produced Les Mots is the reason why I have studied Genet or Flaubert: how does a man become someone who writes, who wants to speak of the imaginary? This is what I sought to answer in my own case, as I sought it in that of others. What could there be to say of my existence since 1939? How I became the writer who produced the particular works I have signed. But the reason why I wrote La Nausée rather than some other book is of little importance. It is the birth of the decision to write that is of interest. Thereafter, what is equally interesting are the reasons why I was to write exactly the contrary to what I wanted to write. But this is another subject altogether— the relationship of a man to the history of his time. Thus what I will write one day is a political testament. The title is perhaps a bad one, since a testament implies the idea of giving advice; here it will simply be the end of a life. What I would like to show is how a man comes to politics, how he is caught by them, and how he is remade other by them; because you must remember that was not made for politics, and yet I was remade by politics so that I eventually had to enter them. It is this which is curious. I will recount what I did politically, what mistakes I committed, and what resulted from it. In doing so, I will try to define what constitutes politics today, in our own phase of history.
Interviewers P.A., R.F., Q.H.