The Hairline Cracks in Perception
Emmanuel Carrere is a writer fascinated by what lurks within the normal. Many writers intrigued by the disquieting would have little interest in the ordinary: would it not represent the bourgeois, the reactionary, the conservative, as they searched out the extraordinary; the thought that radically reshapes consciousness? When surrealists and Dadaists like Tristan Tzara, Artaud and Aragon, Max Ernst and others were interested in altering perception, central to this was a reaction to socio-cultural norms that were deemed bourgeois consciousness. As Ernst would say, "the young man, eager for knowledge, avoided any studies which might degenerate into breadwinning." However, central to Carrere's uncanny approach is his acceptance of bourgeois norms, but not as a conservative determined to uphold the social order, but as an investigator fascinated by lives that function loosely under the rubric of the middle-classes but that contain within them the epistemologically brittle: the hairline cracks in perception. Near the end of Other Lives but Mine, the narrator (who is all but indistinguishable from Carrere) says: "and one more thing: I prefer what I have in common with other people than what sets me apart from them." He admits this is new, but when we look at other Carrere books (like A Russian Novel, The Adversary and the novella The Moustache to which we will pay special attention) there is lurking in the material this quest for the norm, a quest present because it can often very easily be absent.
John Updike, reviewing The Moustache for the New Yorker, observes that so simple a gesture as shaving off a moustache "feels like a dangerous violation of the quotidian". This is an expert talking: Updike is nothing if not a marvellous chronicler of the everyday, yet equally Updike's admiration for Carrere resides in the French writer's capacity to take us into a dissolving universe no matter how attentive Carrere happens to be to the conventional aspects of people's lives. When Updike says "Carrere's mise-en-scene deteriorates more and more, it melts away until nothing remains..." it is like a perceptual dissolution, a variation of Dali's famous melting watch in the painting 'The Persistence ofMemory'. Here, though, the desire is not to create phenomenological weakness, but to feel the weakness of phenomenological strength. If the surrealist wanted to destroy the easy assumptions of 'natural' perception, Carrere wonders how miraculous it is that we can so often assume it.
It is a point the narrator all but makes near the end of Other Lives but Mine. Talking of the life he now has with his wife and daughter, he says: "At her side I know where I am. I can't bear the idea of losing her, but for the first time in my life I believe that what might steal her from me, or me from her, would be an accident, illness, something that would strike me from outside - and not dissatisfaction, ennui, a craving for something new." Other Lives but Mine has itself been an examination of this action from the outside over the thought from the inside, as it opens on the narrator and his family holidaying in Sri Lanka and getting caught in the Tsunami, before the rest of the book examines the life and death (from cancer) of his partner's sister. Vital to the novel is this problem of whether something is coming from the inside or the outside, whether it happens to be visited upon us, or created inside us. As the narrator name-checks Susan Sontag, Fritz Zorn and Pierre Casenave, so he wonders whether cancer is a disease that the patient creates psychologically, or a disease that chooses the patient, physiologically. Sontag regards the psychological as both a myth and an insult: that it lacks scientific evidence and "culpabilizes" the patient. But Zorn and Casenave wonder if the disease is not a "foreign aggressor but a part of him, an intimate enemy that may not even be an enemy". It is as though the narrator is fascinated by the disease because the people he knows who have it lead much more focused lives than he feels he happens to have done. Their lives seemed to lack his indecision, with cancer a variation of the famous quote about hanging: it has the ability to concentrate the mind wonderfully. Both his sister-in-law, and a former colleague of hers he talks to after her death, had cancer in their youth, and were incredibly committed in their personal lives and driven in their careers.
One doesn't want to simplify Other Loves but Mine. However, this notion of feeling that only a foreign aggressor could disturb the narrator's equilibrium after years of disturbing his own, and the musings over whether or not cancer is a foreign aggressor, seems to have its echo in The Moustache. What is it that invades the consciousness of the central character when he shaves off the hair above his lip? Is it a game being played upon him by his girlfriend, or a trick being played upon him by his mind? There are plenty reasons to assume it is the former, as we're told his partner has a loose attachment to the truth, and gains great pleasure from elaborations that go well beyond the boundaries of the white lie. "Like everyone else, Agnes would occasionally tell little white lies, to excuse herself from a dinner, or from not being able to finish her work on time. But instead of saying, for instance, that she was sick or that her car just broke down, or that she had misplaced her appointment book, she offered convincing testimony, totally blown out of all proportion, using obvious falsehoods rather than giving phony but believable reasons". He knows she is capable of not only telling him that he never had a moustache after he shaves it off, but of telling friends also that he never had one when that evening they go to visit them for dinner. Afterwards, "in the car, Agnes didn't go into it any further. She regretted, no doubt, that her joke had gone on to the point where the whole gang had tacitly agreed not to revive it." Is this a problem inside his head, or outside it, courtesy of Agnes's lies? He initially thinks it is the latter.
Carrere builds the story around a combination of the explicable and inexplicable, around the everyday and its absence. This is partly why we propose he isn't interested in a surrealist dismantling of the norm, but interested in an awareness that our norms are based on emotional fragility as readily as bourgeois strength. If the Surrealists wanted to lay into the signifier and the sign, wanted to question the assumptions around words and deeds attached to social convention virulently, Carrere does so tentatively. If Kafka is inevitably often invoked in reviews and articles on Carrere's book, it lies in this element of not so much laying into the signifier, aggressively insisting that the assumptions behind signs be torn down, as we might assume lies in Deleuze's use of the term in relation to Foucault, as explored in his book on the philosopher, called simply Foucault. It rests instead on seeing that many signs contain a hairline fracture that the merest poke opens up still further. In one scene in the book the central character searches through the rubbish looking for the hair that would prove to him that he had shaved off his moustache. While looking he recognizes himself in the refuse bags. "Curious how easy it was to recognize one's own trash, he thought, unearthing bottles of liquid yogurt, crumpled frozen-food wrappers - the trash of rich people, of the bohemian rich who rarely dined at home. This discovery prompted a vague feeling of sociological security, of belonging to his niche, redeemable and recognizable." As he searches for signs of sanity looking for the hair, he also realizes how much this sanity resides in stability - in the reaffirmation of social codes and consumerist characteristics. He clings to any sign that will reaffirm him in his being, as if aware that they are also astonishingly fragile.
One could say that writers like Kafka and Carrere are more deeply revolutionary in their impulses than writers and artists who try and attack the bourgeoisie. If one assumes a mode of attack, is the artist not consequently assuming a given strength in the thing he assaults? It might seem that one is undermining bourgeois institutions, but is the problem more that one is overestimating them? When Dada says it is involved in "destructive action": "knowledge of all the means rejected up until now by the shamefaced sex of comfortable compromise and good manners", "abolition of logic, which is the dance of those impotent to create", and of "every social hierarchy and equation set up for the sake of values by our valets", the force of the attack presupposes the strength of the object ridiculed. Carrere is more inclined to look for weaknesses in the structure rather than storm the fortress: his work is surreptitiously troubling as he wonders what these assumed strengths are based upon. If in The Moustache the central character can collapse on the back of a disagreement, and be partially salvaged by a rummage through a bin bag, what is an identity predicated on? As the narrator and his girlfriend discuss the presence or absence of the moustache, so he says, "Of course they'd believed each other, they really did believe each other, but what were they supposed to believe? That he'd gone mad? That she'd gone mad." When in his review Updike mentions physics and the possibility of parallel universes, he is alluding to this problem, the problem of mutually incompatible realities. He had a moustache or he didn't have a moustache; he can't have and not have a moustache at the same time.
This is parallel worlds as matters of perspective: to stay sane the central character needs to insist he had a moustache that he chose to shave off, and Agnes must conclude that he never had a moustache to shave off in the first place. If they could accept that each of them is right then there is no problem, but if they push towards insisting one is right and the other is wrong, then the sanity of one of them must be suspect. "They'd break down, it was inevitable, they'd doubt each other again. She says at first, all this seemed impossible, but that it was perhaps something that sometimes happened. But to whom? To no one, he didn't know anyone, had never heard of anyone to whom this had happened, believing one had a moustache and not having one." Of course there are plenty of examples of couples who disagree, where they might watch a film and afterwards insist an actor in it had a moustache or didn't, but such a problem takes place on the level of the perceptually unproblematic. The couple might use their disagreement as an opportunity to argue, but it needn't contain any ontological anxiety in the difference of perspectives. How to put that ontological anxiety into the story, Carrere seems to have asked, how to take the everyday notion of perceptual disagreement, and open it up into a chasm of anxiety over one's entire being? How does one make not the marriage collapse, but the world?
Initially we proposed that Carrere is not at all a surrealist writer, surrealist in the sense that Robert Hughes describes surrealism in The Shock of the New: "Chance, memory, desire, coincidence, would create a parallel world". The parallel world of surrealism can create non-sequiturs in narrative and disjunctions in art, but our suspension of disbelief in relation to the surreal accepts the irrationality because it is a product of our unconscious and a work of creativity. It does not need to exist in a coherent universe, just as we can in our minds entertain the idea of being simultaneously a great world leader and the best footballer in the country, and all the while finding a cure for cancer and AIDS. Now while The Moustache is clearly a work of fiction, a number of Carrere's other books have not been: he has written biographies of the writer Philip K. Dick, the poet Eduard Limonov, a book on the murderer Jean-Claude Romand, as well as closely autobiographical works like A Russian Novel and Other Lives but Mine. Yet what most of them have in common is quotidian disquiet as Carrere wants to show how worlds collapse through the small rupture that expands into devastation. In A Russian Novel this comes through a fictional piece Carrere writes in Le Monde about his girlfriend getting aroused on a train reading a story. Carrere wanted her to be sitting on the train reading Le Monde on the day the story was published, in a perfect example of fiction bleeding into life. However she isn't on the train and Carrere can't contact her, with the narrator receiving the very treatment he earlier meted out, rather than an illustration of his hubristic prowess. Earlier in the book the narrator notes "it's terrible for her to feel as if she were in an ejector seat, constantly at the mercy of my moods", and now, with her not on the train, not reading the story, he feels in the ejector seat too. There is no problem of parallel worlds in A Russian Novel, but Carrere creates a similar space for the parallel as speculation. When he doesn't receive a call from his girlfriend, he thinks: "I cannot tell anyone, even myself, what the problem is. I'm not even sure myself: all I know is that it's one of two things: either you're in the hospital, hovering between life and death, or for some reason I can't imagine, you're having fun torturing me." The situation resolves itself in coherent terms: later his girlfriend phones him; she is with a distraught female friend, but it doesn't quite resolve the narrator's thoughts and feelings of anxiety as he then refuses to believe her. Though A Russian Novel doesn't possess the dissolution of reality that proves vital to The Moustache, it might be more useful to see The Moustache not especially about the dissolution of reality (as in surrealism), but the unease contained within our notion of the real that is always easily upset.
From this point of view most of Carrere's work functions as a critique of assumption. In The Adversary, Carrere's non-fiction account of someone who lied to his family for many years, then chose to murder them rather than have them face the truth, Carrere sees the options available to the young Jean-Claude Romand, even after he had just failed to turn up for a medical exam. "On the one hand the normal path, the way taken by his friends and for which he had everyone agrees, slightly better than average qualifications. He had just stumbled on his path, but it was not too late to redeem himself, to catch up with the others: no one had seen him trip." However, there was also "the crooked road of lies...how could he have suspected that there was something worse than being quickly unmasked, which was not to be unmasked, so that this childish lie would lead him eighteen years later to murder his parents, Florence, and the children he did not yet have?" If The Moustache fictionally explores how someone's life falls apart after shaving off some facial hair, The Adversary factually investigates a man whose life is radically transformed after failing to get out of bed one morning. One book moves towards defying the laws of science, but the other seems somehow to defy the laws of social psychology. How could this man keep it going for so long, how was it not possible for family and friends never to find out? Yet as we've proposed, Carrere is interested in the cracks available in the social, not at all in the notion of parallel worlds. The idea interests him for the most prosaic of reasons: how does one live 'other lives but mine', even when that life happens to have been 'mine'?
At the end of The Moustache the central character will take his own life, just as in The Adversary Romand intended to take his after eighteen years of deception and the killing of his family. Romand succeeded in killing the others but failed to kill himself. In The Moustache, the character succeeds in vivid detail as he shaves his face as he did at the beginning; but this time with an old-fashioned, cuthroat razor that earns its name. He slices through his skin and slits his own throat. He wants to do so to regain some order in the world, with the narrator saying, in the long, last sentence: "And when he realized that he'd inevitably choke, that he could never end it this way, he pulled out the razor, fearing that he he'd have no more strength to bring it to his neck, but he succeeded, he was still conscious, even if his gesture was weak, if the titanic contraction of his entire body had receded from his arm, and he sliced blindly, without feeling a thing, under his chin, from one ear to the other, his spirit alive until the last second, rising above the gurgle, the sudden jolt of his legs and stomach, alive and appeased by the certitude that now it was over, everything was back in place". It is the very order Romand presumably sought when killing his family: as if the chaos of explanation was far more troublesome than their quiet removal from the world. Romand's method of putting his house in order was to kill his family and set the family home on fire.
In this sense suicide isn't the radical option proposed by Dada and the surrealists, where the purpose is to create disorder and social turmoil, but to clear the head and make sense of one's life. To give it the sense one believed it could have, or once had. The surrealist approach is the opposite: to assume that life is meaningless and meaning a facile construct for those who cannot live with the truth and who cover it with bourgeois common-places and social appropriateness. This is why many involved in Dadasism and surrealism would create social unrest in situations where codified behaviour would be expected. In The Savage God Al Alvarez talks about Arthur Craven who after being invited to lecture for an audience of Fifth Avenues hostesses "turned up drunk as usual, proceeded to belch and swear at the audience...started to strip off his clothes and was finally dragged away." Jacques Vache was more extreme, and decided to take not only his own life with an overdose of opium, but that of a couple of friends also: "he administered the same lethal dose to two friends who had come along merely for the trip and had no suicidal intention: it was the supreme Dada gesture, the ultimate psychopathic joke: Suicide and double murder".
If Vache killed himself and his friends to show that life was worthless, could we say the same of Romand and the central character in The Moustache? One thinks not, and this might help us locate the final interest of Carrere's work and The Moustache in particular. Carrere is a writer as fascinated by the quotidian as an Updike, but as suspicious of life possessing meaning as Vache and others involved in Dadaism and Surrealism. But where many in the early years of the 20th century and into the twenties wanted to prove it didn't have categorical meaning, perhaps they showed that for most people it actually did. Vache must have known his suicide and double murder would hardly meet with indifference: with many reacting so strongly on the assumption that life had meaning rather than that it didn't. There is a paradox here: life is proved meaningless through a gesture and gains much meaning from its completion. Carrere seems to be saying neither that life has or does not have meaning, but that its creation is a precarious business, and its presence often removed not from sovereign gestures of the self, but debilitations of the body, of the mind, and of the will.
© Tony McKibbin