L'Esprit Créateur Why Doesn't the Radical Left Read Literature?

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Why Doesn't the Radical Left Read Literature?

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Why Doesn't the Radical Left Read Literature? Nathalie Quintane L'Esprit Créateur, Volume 62, Number 1, Spring 2022, pp. 115-125 (Article) Published by Johns Hopkins University Press DOI: https://doi.org/10.1353/esp.2022.0008

For additional information about this article https://muse.jhu.edu/article/851762

[ Access provided at 16 May 2023 02:11 GMT with no institutional affiliation ]

Why Doesn’t the Radical Left Read Literature? Nathalie Quintane

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HE RADICAL LEFT, C’EST MOI.1 I ask myself this question, which is in no way rhetorical: why don’t you read literature (what is understood as literature) anymore, or why do you read less of it? Why are the latest books that you’ve read, respectively and simultaneously (since you always read many books at once), a history book (Nourritures canailles by Madeleine Ferrières), a collection of notes (Apostille by Gérard Genette), the thick volume of a Marxist syncretist (The Political Unconscious by Fredric Jameson)? All in all, why do you prefer the essay La diversité, racisme et médias, a translation of the latest Žižek, a text by Stanley Fish, the biography of Blanqui, a dictionary of the Paris Commune (assuming, of course, that this is not literature) or losing yourself on newspaper websites? Why do you rarely read Le matricules des anges even though you have not missed a single issue of Revue des livres et des idées? For the last ten years, why have you bought books from Prairies ordinaires, Amsterdam, La Fabrique, Lignes—thus shooting yourself in the foot (because these editors don’t generally publish you)? When you go to the market of D., why do you jump on old 10/18 Maspero volumes? Why, when you pronounce the word literature, and even though you’ve been plugging away for years for an extension-redefinition of the field, do you hear straight away what everyone else does: “do you mean fiction, narratives, novels?” Why do you have such a need for serious, legitimate texts? Why do you think that an essay, a philosophical work, will always be more serious and ultimately more important than a book by Duras, poetry (even of the experimental kind) or War and Peace? OK. On second thought, you think that reading War and Peace is more important than La diversité, racisme et médias, but there you have it, you still haven’t read War and Peace, but you are reading La diversité, racisme et médias. And first off, what is the perceptible difference between reading an essay, a history book, or a collection of notes—like those you read recently—and reading what is termed experimental poetry or “contemporary” literature (which you do every now and then, because you are aware that striking things can still take place there). Well then, take Genette’s book, which I started just before a trip: I told myself that it would be a good read and perfect for the train, and if I didn’t take it, it is because it was too heavy for my little bag (I was only travelling for two days, and I don’t have a tablet). © L’Esprit Créateur, Vol. 62, No. 1 (2022), pp. 115–125

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What does it mean for a book to be enjoyable? When reading this book, it seems to me that I rediscovered very old reading habits, something very familiar and comforting in reading, that must go back to learning to read with my grandmother in the Boscher method—and that ended with the story of La chèvre de Monsieur Seguin. Ah! How sweet was Monsieur Seguin’s little goat! How pretty with her sweet eyes, her junior officer’s goatee, her black, shiny clogs, her striped horns, and her long white fur that gave the impression that she wore a mantle! I don’t know what this mantle has to do with this story, but anyway there is this weirdness, this little mystery within an entirely recognizable whole; that’s how literature is commonly understood. What’s more, Behind his house, Monsieur Seguin had a hawthorn courtyard. Ah, it’s only waiting for a nice bed, a good armchair or a long train ride! Behind his house, / Monsieur Seguin / had a hawthorn courtyard: 4/4/6—even and ascending—ah, how clever he was, le petit père Daudet, with his large, dark eyes, his long and curly goatee, and the publication—albeit posthumous—of his darkest book (La doulou, the account of his syphilitic misery). For me, there is a little goat behind many books, behind abundant and often delicious (as literary journalists say) readings. I even ask myself if it is not this little goat that I am looking for in these essays, these peaceful biographies of revolutionary actors, these chill translations of exalted philosophers, these organized and rigorous descriptions of irrational and calamitous situations. Everywhere, in every circumstance, I see the little goat’s goatee pointing out, and after all, this is perhaps what drives my reading. This is perhaps what enables me to discover beautiful new books; it is also this routine of reading that always positions me as an apprentice that forges, forged, will forge, my “political awareness.” Because the majority of these texts—not all of them!— are, so to speak, puppeted by a goat: the s(ch)olar goat of childhood French, which is read without being seen (it is the sign of good reading that reading is smooth), in French that is smooth as silk, like a novel. Then, we turn to firstrate French, which we annotate while appreciating its quality. First-rate contemporary texts that bespeak our mess—that of current upheavals—confer classicism onto this mess that sometimes dates the narrated events. They date them in a different way than those who abuse trendy—which is to say out-ofdate—vocabulary; they make these words go off differently. No matter how good the intention is of the writer relating the mess, the concern for language always catches up. We discover great things, but written in language that continually bespeaks this concern, so much so that the text incarnates this concern, and totes it around like a little character attached to all of the terrible events. Obviously, the point is not to imitate the mess – as one can imitate rain drops 116

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on piano keys—but rather to consider that writing neither implies determining in advance the issues of reading speed, nor chaptering, nor even typography. By contagion, crystal-clear French would clarify terrible events, the mess, the present, the real—or, let’s say, our perceptions of them. Or the act of writing about the mess in crystal-clear French, deep etching it so to speak, would paradoxically provide a better rendering. In sum, a magical operation. Lately, I became worried about being the only one to find something funny. A sentence—that I will come back to—seemed ridiculous to me. It was a sentence from general or General de Gaulle (I’m not sure it needs capitalization here or not). I cited this sentence to a friend, convinced that he would roll on the floor laughing, or maybe that he would burst out laughing, laugh a little, find it amusing, or at least force himself to grin. Nothing. He looked at me like a cow chewing its cud. Don’t you find this funny? No, and it’s also not wrong (what the general or the General says). My friend is not a Gaullist. Besides, it has nothing to do with the fact of being Gaullist or not; I would have still found the sentence ridiculous even if it were pronounced by anyone other than the general or the General—but not this friend. So, I told myself there was no reason that he would be the only one to find it ingenious, that there must be others, and would I be willing to run the risk to test it on others only to discover that they also found it interesting, and maybe even right? This meant that I was perhaps now the only one who finds this sort of sentence stupid. But surely, it couldn’t be only this one sentence; the sentence was clearly revelatory of a system of thought. There was my system of thought that allowed me to find this sentence and others funny, and there was the friends’ new system of thought that didn’t make them laugh at it. I had remained in the Old World, and they had shifted to the New One. Now, I ask you to rate this sentence on a scale from 1 to 10—with 1 being serious and 10 humorous—so you will know to what degree you are in the Old World or the New One: France comes from the depths of history (de Gaulle, Memoirs of Hope, volume 3). *

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[...] One can wonder why certain prose written by the radical left veers towards lamentation, whether retrospectively or preventatively (anticipation and recollection merge here, the failure of past revolution being a specific feature of revolution. This is how a revolution can be recognized: it failed). But maybe I should first try to understand why this prose rubs me so much the wrong way. It seems embodied by a voice that isn’t unique in and of itself: VOL. 62, NO. 1

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that of Guy Debord in his films. Not the voice of 1978, that of the end of it all,2 because I’ve heard more or less the same one in Italian in a Pasolini film of 1963. It’s an archival montage accompanied by a serious, yet plaintive voiceover,3 that of the already-disappointed anticipating its future disappointment. An unimposing tone that is nevertheless reminiscent of Bataille in La notion de dépense and La part maudite. I don’t know if this sort of nursery rhyme scansion is a “sign of the times” (during the same years, de Gaulle, caught up in an incurable nostalgia for “literature,” attempted the same nostalgic tone with its emphatic and majestic quality. The attempt at majesty in Debord’s films veers towards poignant melancholy, while de Gaulle’s attempt at majesty veers towards fanfare). One has to ask if he or she is nostalgic for this type of French—and thus regrets its “demise”—or if another literature can be appreciated and used, accompanied by other languages and other political uses of language. It is as if French was looking for this: this obscure desire (even activist rap sometimes adopts this weepy, moralizing tone—as if Jacques Brel and Guy Debord had given birth to a brat that has been whining for three decades). Obviously, those addressed by these films can only be touched by this voice, and these kinds of sentences, even strengthened by them. Straightaway, they see themselves coming together as a group (or reconstructed as one, because it is more about the historical reconstruction of a group dissolved by circumstances—as well as by other, less pleasant things). They feel themselves as belonging to a “we” that is even stronger because it is marginal. In fact, this group bears counting; at an art cinema today, we count one another because the number of spectators is far from being incalculable. The radical left (which is me, just to remind you), while it reads little, or less, continues to go to the cinema to verify that they no longer feel at home there. They go to feel bad at counting the number of spectators, and assuming the day will come when there will only be five, then only four, then only three… until the terrible and delicious moment of at-last-aloneness. Here I am, the last cinephile, the very last activist of an intellectual left that has abandoned everything, that gave up bit by bit. Here I am alone in the desert of things (the radical left has retained a touch of Chateaubriand). That being said, I’ve come a long way: I experienced a (long) period in which the word “collective” no longer existed. I remember at the end of the 1980s and still in the beginning of the 1990s, before “we” (my own, that of the young poets of this generation, a sub-sub-section of the sub-section) found ourselves brought together by work, that we were searching in vain how to organize ourselves and what kind of life to live, without ever thinking of a 118

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shared form (it was rather: should I be with a woman/man now or later; should I not have a child or should I have one; should I live in the city or the country; Paris/province; Spain/England, etc.). This questioning only gestured at politics through a “Deleuzian” lens, vaguely—as a rhizome proliferates out of nowhere without any intervention except for divine. We read Bourdieu—but the early Bourdieu of “Raisons d’agir” (1996). The word “collective” must have come back into fashion stridently at the end of the 1990s, used in any way or about anything (a “collective” is like a gang, three people suffice). Having become trendy, the word is at the same time overloaded and disarmed. Overloading words is a frequent habit in our society; everyone applies themselves to it. Young writers (some now editors) have earnestly used and abused the term “collective” to affect a posture. *

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I see this author, writer, academic, after first writing in an autobiographical novel that he passed his PhD with distinction by arguing that an ordinary text and a literary one are two distinct things (which leads to what is not said: that an ordinary text is not literary and that a literary text is not useful—or at least that we have a particular use of it, a use that is not useful). Orally, he rectifies that, it goes without saying that literature is useful (useful, perhaps, but outside of any utilitarian use, outside of all practical application). The fact is that today, to declare that literature is useless is to read it its last rites. It has now become indispensable, among the observant as with true believers, to affirm it is useful “for society,” without making clear exactly how. Literature cannot be useful like a teaspoon or home care services, but it isn’t useless either, since it is superiorly useful, which isn’t easy to understand. The true believers and certain observers get around this by explaining that literature (and singularly, the novel) provides us richness and complexity that would otherwise be inaccessible. It would do so (two-in-one, point and match) by somehow cleansing the language of its sins of communication (and here to cite Mallarmé’s phrase on continuing to wash ever deeper the words of the tribe). The language used by literature is special and, if not superior and sacred, at least distinct, even disconnected. In its esthetic isolationism, literature bequeaths to us texts that are beautiful and whole, yet open. The reader comes across these texts that fill an incompleteness, nourishing it in the reader, opening this sinner who, as soon as the book closes, will go back to dragging language in the gutter. Because the language spoken by literature corrects and redeems the democratic flaws of spoken language, beyond any reversal, for VOL. 62, NO. 1

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the sake of it—whether it be the language des banlieues, that of TV hosts or misspelled written language. While reminding us that language is a tool that can always be improved (this is the message from school, which presents authors as models to follow to enrich one’s language on the bac, making it more beautiful through creative writing tasks, or more rigorous through the essay), literature sets down language that is different from all others, extraordinary even when treating the ordinary (extra-ordinary at times by being too ordinary—see Modiano). It has no contact with other discourses apart from those that serve or benefit it (like the use of slang by one great author or another) or rather acts indirectly to admonish them. When, in 1835, Théophile Gautier, in his preface to Mademoiselle de Maupin, wrote that “The most useful place in a house is the latrine,” the context was such that the republicans of the era reproached literature for its break with common concerns, and the right its excess of freedom. Rejected one after the other, utilitarian critiques and moral critiques are joined together in the same chasm, and in the same vicious derision (“You can’t slip on a simile instead of a pair of slippers”). Reduced to one-upmanship by politicians who survive only by one-upmanship (we know what that’s like), Gautier exaggerates l’art pour l’art to continue to live (he does not fail to remind us that there is an indeed material utility of literature, at least that of the “book business,” while he makes fun of its spiritual utility. In the meantime, we can skip reading the critics’ bull, whether utilitarian or moral). The contemporary context is not the same: on the right and on the left, whether culturally discerning or not, no one cares about commenting on literature. It reaches the public only when names are named (this man, when he recognizes himself, is depicted as a pig; this woman is my sister; this situation appears identical to one I have experienced—so it must be about me). The most interesting “debates” are in the courtrooms, led by lawyers who become almost specialists in the ontology of art: confronted with victims tasked with proving that this is not literature, it is doubtlessly difficult to claim otherwise that it is, and to adopt an “institutional” position (acknowledged as a writer, everything that they do is literature). As for the victims, they care nothing for institutional critique (that is, literature as an institution), which would put forth that all that appears in a book labeled as a novel is fictional; their reading extracts facts from the fiction so as to invalidate the only interpretive communities that are still legitimate: the police and the judges (for example the books considered as evidence in the Tarnac Affair). As in the nineteenth century, when literature has social effects, it institutes its own trial. In these conditions, a text is literary (and the writer innocent) when it produces only effects of real120

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ity (and not social effects), effects of reality that some mistakenly take for social effects. If it reaches or “touches” for real, then it cannot be literature, because literature produces nothing else but the literary. The writer is found guilty because they are not a writer, and one can be fully recognized as a writer only if their texts have zero social effect. But what writer would like to be found innocent? What writer would not prefer to be judged guilty rather than a zero, or as having zero effect? No one has forgotten that the two greatest authors of the nineteenth century (Baudelaire and Flaubert) were found guilty, and so, being found guilty oneself is rather a good sign, even if the case has nothing of the Bovary sauce. And since the condition for texts to be recognized as literary is that they count for nothing, their authors at least seek for themselves some non-zero social effect—in this case, media coverage. Writing on boxing, Samuel Rochery notes that “the hygienist won’t be able to understand that someone like Mike Tyson can truly think and say into a journalist’s mic that he is there to kill his adversary, even though the desire to kill in the sphere of sport (which is not that of the street) is exactly what is authentically athletic (in the sense of Brecht) in his endeavor.”4 I would say that what is authentically literary in a writer’s approach is not the desire to create effects of reality like courtroom grandstanding, but rather the desire to create truth, for real, in a society globally hygienic in literary matters. It remains to be seen what for real signifies in a medium or an artistic discipline that has always been described as illusory, “true-lying,” etc.—which is summed up almost entirely by the novel, and where the art of fiction has absorbed the document. (Today, there is not a 50/50 division in the valorized indistinction between “real” and fiction; rather, the second tends to digest the first term.) In a certain way, a final stage has been reached where even the most rigorous journalists, the most concerned with reporting (I’m thinking of Florence Aubenas), borrow the codes of the novel, because only these codes are capable of making a true incident readable, publishable, and public (the reality of exploitation and domination in Le quai de Ouistreham, for example).5 But how to establish the reality of facts in the context of a novel? What to do when the individual in question becomes ipso facto a character of literature-reality? In the idea that bare description would suffice in itself, this transparent style of writing does not conceal anything and remains neutral since it is the most “flat” and ordinary. Yet, form-language is never ideologically neutral. There are “cold” styles more likely to seize the cruelty of something, but non-fiction novels are not cold, at least not with that kind of coldness: they have the moral duty of empathy with their topic—if only to make VOL. 62, NO. 1

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readers forget that there, for the book, it’s an object (at best, mere sentence fodder). And if the author is always asked what has become of his characters, if they are really like this or that in reality, and if they continue to see these characters today after writing the book, isn’t this precisely because they are only characters that will never be people? There is something delicate (sensitive) in leaving readers with the right to indignation or revolt against the situation presented to them (if only to avoid the heaviness of committed literature, which hasn’t been read in fifty years because it hasn’t been written in fifty years. But committed literature is like avant-garde literature: it’s always fear-inducing, as a matter of principle, just like the old anti-communist posters of a man with a knife between his teeth). And so, the existing social order becomes the only known and knowable system, and this de facto order becomes the only credible one, which elicits our sense of belief for the duration of our reading (any disbelief must be suspended to dive into the story). The impossibility of questioning a narrative erodes the possibility of questioning the social order—we critique it, condemn it, but can hardly see how things would be if they were different. We hardly see that things could be different. The text is stuck in what Jameson calls its ideological performativity (which is to say, the more or less fair account of that which goes without saying).6 Valued literature (that is, novels that are critiqued) is baroque—a lush novel that substitutes one world for another, which is to say our own, but reenchanted by the superpowers of the writer and his burgeoning language. Or otherwise, there is sober literature that attempts to bring forth the world as it is via the subtraction of “literature,” thus revealing the brutality of its forces of production and its social relations. Or it conjures up our same world, yet worse, where the excess serves to uncover what is going wrong. Whether it is sober or baroque, whether disabused or lyrical, this literature oozes with horror or fascination. Perhaps it captures something of the vague stupefaction that has hold of us, and to which we respond for the time being only by straining against the reins or by running through the range of logical, realist political possibilities from ultra-liberalism to local socialism. Every combination is looked over one after the other or dispensed at random as from a slot machine. Literature supposedly has an ethical position that requires that it does not embellish either language or facts. By paying attention to things as proof of its attention to something other than itself, literature redeems itself from the modern sin of having taken itself for its own end, as well as the postmodern sin of having considered everything as a text. It makes amends for having abandoned the impossible quest for the real and the quest of the impossible real, and so as ultimately to revel in the simulacre (or so they say). This liter122

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ature of the constative prohibits projective readings and the projective dimension of the literary act. Literature has not produced solely compensatory works, and all in all, the central matrix of our texts, the Gospels, is not compensatory but instead utopian. In any case, it is far from being only a literature that consoles and soothes. If you grant me that literature thinks a little, even when it doesn’t think that it thinks (see “thesis” novels, or their current version, “thesis” dime-store novels, and all the S.A.S. spy novels, seen through the lens of the West’s decline (I don’t want to cite a famous author)—I remind you that it constructed not only alternative narratives but also experimentation with alternative thought and bifurcations (like the Cendrars of Lotissement du ciel as well as Prose du Transsibérien, and many others). The nature of the story is never disclosed at the beginning of a medieval work because it is not contained within the book but instead reaches through it to connect to the world and its allegorical and symbolic life. And to practical life (a chanson de geste like Raoul de Cambrai is full of problems of inheritance). Certainly, there is nothing farther from a novel by Balzac than a novel by Sterne or Céline, and each author invents his own form within an existing genre; yet, currently, the novel that I see most read and sold is very much domestic nineteenth century. It is soothing and consoling, perfectly compatible with late capitalism because it does not merely support it, but rather is one of its most accomplished products. The extreme stories that are supposed to undermine the system actually reinforce it—like the adepts of go-fast, though officially delinquents, are the dream entrepreneurs of ultra-liberalism. Because I don’t think that today’s writers, even the mildest of them, are “innocent”—or are so only unwittingly… But how can one not subconsciously desire to be rid once and for all of a literature that no longer produces effects (be they practical, social, historical effects or effects of reality, especially being a writer oneself? How can one not want to close the empty lecture halls where some stray students still wander looking for the Department of Communication and Media? [...]. That literature acts, and not only for its own sake or for that of its circle of true believers, but beyond itself, of that we (readers) are firmly convinced: we regularly experience it. But most of us are not able to convey that the literary act be regarded fully as such, symbolically and socially active, and that reading certain texts partakes in deep experience and leads to the full and complete possession of this experience, to the point of pushing us to act outside of books. It goes without saying that any text is ideologically charged—Katherine Pancol’s as much as any others. It goes without saying that any literary object is political—Joan of Arc as much as soap, as Ponge has shown [...]. I thought VOL. 62, NO. 1

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that writing two hundred pages on shoes was a sufficiently obvious political act that I didn’t need to restate this otherwise than by writing it. But nothing is (has become) less certain. A book never comes out in isolation: it comes out with all the other books no matter how large the disparity in sales between them. A book like Chaussure7 came out with Amélie Nothomb’s Attentat, with Delerm’s latest best-seller, yet another Bobin probably, and the Bret Easton Ellis or Murakami of the year; with all of them. This book isn’t read alone but in relation to all of the others and to what is “completely other” (which isn’t), in relation to the president, the layoffs of the day, the heatwaves, the surgical strikes and forgotten wars of the era, dresses, planets, agriculture. In fact, the context of books’ reception (both past and present) seems more important to me for grasping something politically (in other words, perceptibly) than the generalized “return” of the referent. So, I thought that writing Chaussure was enough. But when Tomates (which dealt with the Tarnac Affair and Sarkozy era) came out, I understood that thematization had become (once again) indispensable: to be political, a book had to discuss politics. If to be political, we must discuss politics, then that means we don’t understand much about politics (or even the political). However, elsewhere just as well as here, everyone knows that it isn’t because it speaks of politics that it is political. Outside of literature, everyone knows it; within the domain of literature, we’re forced to announce it. It is nerve wracking but here we are, given how deeply indifferent we’ve become to the referent, that to discuss unemployment in a book today we need an unemployed character; to discuss dictatorship, we need a dictator; to discuss domination, we need the dominated with their records of domination, their names, their addresses, their phone numbers, headshots, and fingerprints. In short, we must do police work and establish criminal identity (undoubtedly, the fitting return to novelistic writing in court proceedings, or the vivid imagination of Interior Minister Alliot-Marie or the French General Directorate for Internal Security at the end of the 2000s). In the conclusion of The Political Unconscious (already an old text— 1981), Jameson calls for a synthesis of the negative and positive sides of Marxist hermeneutics: we must bear in mind the ideological character of texts, that which makes them “complicit with privilege and class domination,” but, at the same time, decipher “the utopian impulses they harbor.” This is an optimistic conclusion (even though he reaffirms, when citing Benjamin, the power of nuisance and the “ideological distortion of all cultural artifacts”), a conclusion that was possible to come to in 1981. Here is the feeling of reading texts from the past or even recent texts, interpreted as if they provide this past to us anew (without newness), a past that may still give us energy for the future, recalling 124

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projective experience without renewing it, without actualizing it, only (and this is already something) as the (nostalgic) shape of what has been. Here is the feeling that this reading only awakens indignation in us, most of the time, at best, anger, promptly swallowed, when reminded that this is what we are living and seeing, or that this is what we could have lived and seen; and this impression is not separable from the same feeling in life in general (individual and collective). For the time being (we are in 2014), the utopian impulse or the projective capacity/propriety of books, films, etc. is invoked (perhaps more than evoked) to say that this can be possible because it has happened. We see an American theorist still mentioning it in 1981, a bit like when in everyday life or in the Left Front, where one continues to say utopia or revolution rather than saying reform, so as not to anesthetize these terms, not to throw them in the trash can of History. Except that it is not these words that are in the trash, it is History itself and the perspective it offers (sites of memory have become indispensable at a time when the feeling of History subsides)—and the harsh reality that it reflects back to us, of which we are (should be) appalled. OK, it’s not my style to end on lamentations. The consciousness of all of this, the fact that a large number of us (if not all) have a more and more exacerbated awareness that action for real should and must return—and prepares itself perhaps—in literature and elsewhere; I hope and believe this arises in what is being said. Indeed, this is how it begins. If it begins and continues in this way, our narrow readings of our (narrow) means will increase their scope, breathe, and include the outside-the-text in the text and make its contours readable. We will be able to read everything because everything will be visible but opaque, audible but muffled, strange and perceptible. We will be able to write more lively books. The radical left will finally be able to read literature once again. Translated by Jeff Barda and Eric Lynch Notes 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7.

Nathalie Quintane, “Pourquoi l’extrême gauche ne lit-elle pas de littérature?”, Les années 10 (Paris: La Fabrique, 2014). 1978 is the year that Debord films In Girum imus nocte et consumimur igni. Its release date, 1981. Pier Paolo Pasolini, Anger (La rabbia), montage of news archives, 50’, release date, 1963. Samuel Rochery, Now Sports (Marseille : Éric Pesty, 2013), unpaginated. Florence Aubenas, Le quai de Ouistreham (Paris: Éditions de L’Olivier, 2010). Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (London: Routledge, 2002). Nathalie Quintane, Chaussure (Paris: P.O.L, 1997).

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