France as Told by Two

Two books by two important French writers appear simultaneously in the English language. Furthermore, both volumes take up French history of the last 50 years, with a focus on growing self-awareness of the working class in France. Annie Ernaux is a prominent French writer, known for her memoirs A Man’s Place (1984) and A Woman’s Story, works dedicated to her parents. Didier Eribon is a professor of sociology at the University of Amiens, who has published noted works on Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu, as well as Insult and the Making of the Gay Self. The theme of this last book is taken up again in the latest publication. What is more, Eribon is an admirer of Ernaux’s work, and often cites it in the present volume.

Walter Benjamin has written about Dostoyevsky’s novel The Idiot that it resembles a massive crater. The same metaphor illuminates Annie Ernaux’s memoir The Years, and on an even more explicit level. This work, which was received with great praise in France 10 years ago, and now again on the occasion of its English translation (Les Années [Paris: Gallimard, 2008]; translated 2017, Seven Stories Press, now with Fitzcarraldo Editions), attempts to narrate the very flowing away of time by taking a very specific attitude towards words, events, objects, and people. In this sense, Ernaux’s book puts itself before a metaphysical task. For this reason, there is a consistency to Ernaux’s arresting decision to write in the third person plural “we”—fittingly described by Lauren Elkin in The Guardian as a “choral we” or—and in the singular “she.” Elkin’s observation is well put because it brings out how this entire narrative is like a chorus, repeated after each verse of a song or lyric, providing its pivotal momentum. Accordingly, The Years develops a personal story to attain a general or collective significance: It becomes the story of France of the last 50 years.

In contrast, Eribon goes exactly the other way. Eribon, an established sociologist, uses his academic vocabulary, the language of abstraction and generalization, to bring out his highly personal story. Returning to Reims (Retour à Reims [Paris: Fayard, 2009]; translated 2013, Semiotext(e), now with Allen Lane) relates Eribon’s personal journey from his childhood in Reims to his uncertain steps onto an academic career. On this journey, he feels constantly the pull of two opposed sides of his identity: his working-class background and his homosexuality. Eribon himself notes how he has been able to make an intellectual concern of homosexuality, writing successful books like Insult and the Making of the Gay Self precisely by rejecting and even denying his class origins. One coming out coincides with another closeting. Compared to the metaphysical aspiration of The Years, Returning to Reims can be read as an introduction to sociology, to the understanding of truths that envelop us whole.

The Years’s special
quality, its resemblance to Benjamin’s crater, asserts itself from the

All the images will disappear: the woman who squatted to urinate in broad daylight, behind the shack that served coffee at the edge of the ruins in Yvetot, who stood, skirts lifted, to pull up her underwear and then returned to the café.

A little bit further, this preamble pauses, to commence another series: “Thousands of words, the ones used to name things, faces, acts and feelings, to put the world in order, make the heart beat and the sex grow moist, will suddenly be nullified.” This preamble of the novel consists of a series of about 50 short aphorisms, all of whom, some stronger than others, display a way of folding away in themselves. None of these aphorisms is dressed up as a full sentence. They are not capitalized, and there is no full stop at the end of any of them but the very last. In that sense, they are less than statements. They mean to prepare the reader for what comes next, the story of the particular way in which time flowed over or through France these past 70 years.

The difficult, aphoristic folding away of statements is achieved by presenting the component on which the aphorism opens as married to something heard in a very minor key, or very singular, as to shut it down or sidetrack it and show how its potency runs out. Here is another one:

…on an outdoor stage, the woman shut into a box pierced all the way through by men with silver spears—and emerging alive because it was a magic trick, called The Martyrdom of a Woman.

In this case, the formula works so well because it connects the history of patriarchy and its abuses to a dramatic title, but only through a provincial scene of entertainment, of folklore, even, and thus by way of an exception on this history. It heightens the horror of patriarchy precisely because this formulation—like the others—does not attain the rank of statement: It enacts the very suppression it describes.

Ernaux soon departs from this aphoristic style. She then goes on to describe the experience of her generation: the poverty of rural Normandy after World War II, the hatred of Germany, and the way in which time, for the children, was experienced as received, as a given thing. Time and history were present in the stories told by the generation of the parents, and invariably, these stories would involve the occupation. Indeed, this part of the book articulates time as some kind of sediment, something washed up on the shore. Time has as memory a physical dimension to it that is absolutely evident to the children: “Memory was transmitted not only through the stories but through the ways of walking, sitting, talking, laughing, eating, hailing someone, grabbing hold of objects.”

The children simply take this dimension of time for granted.
Yet over time they discover their capacity to answer to it, even if they remain
for the most part silent witnesses. In fact, Ernaux reports that only as
teenagers they become gradually become a partner in conversation to their
parents and other grown-ups:

In the mid-1950s, at family meals, teenagers remained at the table. They listened but did not speak, smiled politely at the jokes that were not funny, the approving comments whose objects was their physical development, the salty innuendos designed to make them blush, and answered only the cautious questions about their schoolwork.

Gradually, Ernaux’s generation awakens to the life of time, its characteristic of moving along with human beings—although never in sync: There is always a discord between the pace of history and the generation that occupies it, and The Years relates the experience of this dissonance.

Compared to Eribon’s Returning to Reims, there is the strong similarity of people discovering at a young age that their education has already exceeded that of their parents, or indeed their entire milieu. This presents them with a crisis of authority: Within the household, they cannot make knowledge-based claims that would undermine the position of the parents, the father most of all. As Ernaux’s parents were shopkeepers at a time when almost everyone was feeling the aftermath of the War, her experience of the class struggle appears relatively mild. The lower middle classes, and a context of general scarcity, help to mediate her awareness of class of identity. Her character, “she” or “we” is aware of being in school together with the children of doctors and schoolteachers, but is always able to reconcile, or at least make sense of these conflicting worlds. Eribon, however, describes his background as extremely poor. There exists an absolute separation between his, and the middle class. This separation can only be traversed by pretending to be someone he is not. In turn, for Ernaux’s generation, and more importantly for women the main predicament of being a young adult is the inexistence of contraception in the 1950s in France.

The same class distinction and difference for their respective generations mediates access entry to intellectual debates, books, and representatives. For Ernaux, these come as a matter of course: studying to be a teacher, listening to the radio news, and generally making her way into the world means for her a pre-existing acquaintance with de Beauvoir and Sartre, and the rest of French intelligentsia that follow their trail. When les nouveaux philosophes appear on the scene in the early 1970s, they arouse only a mild and fleeting interest:

Unlike Sartre, who was said to be senile and still refused to go on TV, or de Beauvoir with her rapid-fire diction, they were young. They challenged our consciences in words that we could understand and reassured us of our intelligence. The spectacle of their moral indignation was entertaining, though it was not clear what they were trying to do, other than discourage people from voting for the Union of the Left.

It is interesting that in Ernaux’s account, philosophy—but also art and often cinema—is talked about as an integral element of the general French culture (there is scattering of namedropping throughout The Years, indicating an easy and self-evident familiarity with high culture). Indeed, Ernaux skips those thinkers whose rigor is much more respected in academic circles today, like Foucault and Derrida—exactly thinkers of the caliber that Eribon ends up close to. For instance, Eribon’s intellectual debt to Sartre, in terms of his coming of age as a philosopher, is massive, as he Sartre is a lasting presence when he describes his formative years. Nonetheless, he is keen to point out, in his biography on Foucault, how young philosophers of the latter’s generation admired Merleau-Ponty even more because Merleau-Ponty “was more academic, more rigorous, less ‘in vogue’, and, above all, took more risks in his attempts to open philosophy up to contributions from the human sciences.”

It seems that Eribon shares Foucault’s attitude, that philosophy or academia is always in need of another kind of legitimacy, as it, from Eribon’s perspective, cannot be a part of a culture as a whole. Indeed, for Eribon, all of this, the intelligentsia, was a strange land from the outset, to be taken only by an utmost effort of will and determination, and not without a measure of self-denial and the pretence of being something other than he was. The very activity of reading Marx or Sartre was revolutionary and borderline insubordinate for Eribon as an adolescent. This break constitutes his experience of embarking on an academic life, leaving his native milieu behind him and explains his affinity for Foucault taking leave of Sartre at the end of the 1940s: a thinker with the setup of Eribon is never easy with his environment and must always take the avant-garde.

Ernaux’s character, navigating the
predicaments of sexual autonomy, family life and its disruption, and financial
independence, appears simply to lap up the world of philosophy. Her social
mobility is constrained by other factors or by exceedingly more factors at the
same time, not permitting of one or two significant ones. For Eribon, being gay
and being working class together set up the north and south for his entire life
to span.

This process, for Eribon, is far from
completed. In fact, he notes how this book is yet another step in his journey
of removing himself from his origins:

I’m painfully aware that the way I have arranged the writing of this book assumes—both about me and my readers—that we are socially distant from the circumstances and from the people who still live the kinds of lives I am attempting to describe and to reconstruct. I am equally aware how improbable it is that any of those people could end up reading these pages. When people write about the working class world, which they rarely do, it is most often because they have left it behind. This happens even if they write with the goal of exposing and critiquing the very status of social illegitimacy to which these people are relegated over and over again, because in writing they take a necessary critical distance because they have left it behind, and with it comes the position of a judge or an evaluator.

Annie Ernaux was born in 1940, Didier Eribon in 1953. Both spend their upbringing in the North of France. Notwithstanding the considerable difficulties for women of her generation, Ernaux relates a vastly more open social reality from the one that appears in Eribon’s pages. That same difference, however, coincides with their slightly differing social backgrounds, from the lower middle classes and the working classes. Furthermore, to highlight this difference does a disservice to The Years, which is not about class and sociology. It is about time, and how sexuality can take its pulse.

“Near the end of her book, Ernaux presents her methodology and her instrument: “the palimpsest sensation.” In these final pages of The Years, the protagonist—“she,” “we”—describes a relationship with a younger lover. Although the relationship appears exclusively sexual, it is to the protagonist least of all about sex. Instead, sex becomes an antenna for reconnecting to a lifetime of experiences. It is because she does not belong to this man’s generation, his life and his world, that during their rendezvous she is displaced onto the span of her life as a whole. Her body in these moments attains the capacity of feeling sensations from decades ago, as it records once more the sensations of her life, that become manifest this time as their duplicate: the palimpsest sensation.

There are very moving pages, particularly in the description of the closeness of the lover as recording her former bodily closeness to her mother. This kind of reconciliation is only hinted at in Eribon’s book, in its consistent but implicit reverence for his mother, who he describes as a very intelligent person, and someone who craved education but was always in a position too disadvantaged to get it. This woman gets a couple of great lines, for example about her son’s prejudice towards his own class, as well as the final say when it appears that Eribon has arrived in the world of academia.

Absence of Inspiration, Absence of God: On Christian Wiman’s ‘He Held Radical Light’

One of the themes that speak most powerfully from Christian Wiman’s writings—poems, essays, memoirs—is that of the absence of inspiration or the absence of God. To begin with the first formulation, Wiman concedes of the texts most close to his heart that for page after page after page they will fail to inspire. For one of the most prominent Christian poets working in North America today, it might seem surprising to see how he calls the Bible, for the most part, “cold ash.” It is also in these pages—his first volume of essays, Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet (2007)—that Wiman relates his time reading Milton in Guatemala in similar terms: reading for hours on end while getting nothing in return. The poet has to be patient, as his art doesn’t care for him in the same way he cares for her.

The absence of God, the second form that this absence takes in Wiman’s writings, is a motif he takes from Simone Weil and, for the present volume, from the Spanish poet Juan Ramón Jiménez. The absence of God in the contemporary world is, to Wiman, the cue par excellence for Christian faith to seize on. What presented him decisively with this cue was when, a year after he married the poet Danielle Chapman, he was diagnosed with a life-threatening form of cancer. Coming from a deeply religious family and culture, in the years following his diagnosis Wiman began to revisit the words, forms, and stories that belonged to his Christian upbringing.

This theme of the absent God and the absence of inspiration connects to a crucial stake of Wiman’s work. This is the redemptive work of the poem itself, how it absolves the poet, and releases him from ambition. The poem, it seems, mediates between the self and grace. This is evinced by Ambition and Survival, as well as Wiman’s poetry, for instance “From a Window” from Every Riven Thing (2010) which ends with the lines “that life is not the life of men / And that is where the joy came in.” Joy, grace, God—as these concepts are not subject to ambition, which means they cannot be secured by the exercise of free will. All of Wiman’s writing brings out how the poet, with his own measure of skill, his form and style, attempts to come to terms with this lasting truth. Within poetry, there is something greater at stake than poetry itself—not just an expression of Christian thinking on Wiman’s, this is an essential stake of his poetics.

Christian Wiman was known in literary circles for his poems and work as a critic, when he came into the spotlight as the editor of the renowned Poetry journal, at a time when that institution was gifted a massive financial bequest from Ruth Lilly in 2003. In fact, the present volume talks about his time working at Poetry’s Chicago offices, and it seems to hint at a running gag about Wiman’s resolution to stay with the journal for a year, maybe two or three at most, while in fact he ultimately held the job for a decade. Notwithstanding his legacy as the editor of Poetry, Wiman definitively made his name as a writer and thinker when in 2013 he published My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. In this book, Wiman uses poetry and theology to contemplate his mortality and his illness as he searches for the words to articulate his faith. Currently, Wiman teaches religion and literature at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School.

With Wiman, absence effectively becomes conditional to whatever presence it denies. This is true for his poetics as well as his theology. In the case of poetry, Wiman often relates his discoveries in reading other poets as well as his own creative process as significantly coming from a place of intense boredom. For example, it matters to Wiman that Milton’s towering Paradise Lost is, for the most part, practically unreadable and certainly disagreeable to the contemporary reader, as it is also important to him that Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his prison letters, only seems to find his voice in the correspondence with his friend Eberhard Bethge. These examples are from Ambition and Survival and My Bright Abyss. Similarly, He Held Radical Light: The Art of Faith, the Faith of Art, his latest publication, takes its cue from a particularly uninspired performance of A.R. Ammons to build its narrative arc (Ammons is also behind the book’s title) while it also tells a funny and moving story about how Wiman finds unexpected joy and insight in the work of Mary Oliver—an experience that is confirmed when they meet. In this respect, the time with Poetry journal must have been highly formative, as it equipped him with the capacity of reading poetry as a desk-based job, describing himself as ”a clerk of verse.”

The absent God is a point of theological principle to Wiman—influenced by Weil, Bonhoeffer, and other avant-garde Christian thinkers like Jürgen Moltmann, who take as their point of departure the image of Christ dying at the cross, crying out his abandonment. Importantly, however, Wiman speaks in this sense from experience, about this dangerous and unpredictable form of cancer that he has lived with since 2007.

He Held Radical Light displays the poetical prose familiar to readers of My Bright Abyss: Every sentence is chiseled into stone, beautiful and lasting. Although Wiman can be casual in his formulations—for example when he declares his regret with ever having put Lolita “into his brain”—his ear for the rhyme of a prose sentence, enhanced with great precision and sincerity, makes for a reading experience that is extremely rare. The transparency of the writing is so strong that it illuminates and reflects on the reader. There are also structural similarities between He Held Radical Light and My Bright Abyss, like Wiman’s fondness for telling sobering anecdotes about meeting older poets, as these play their part in preparing the young poet for a lifetime waiting on poetry. These two books are different on another level. While in My Bright Abyss, composed from standalone essays, Wiman is really writing aphorisms, He Held Radical Light consists of one single narrative thread. If the subject matter of the earlier book might have constrained Wiman to short bursts of writing, here his endurance has expanded. This dissimilarity aside, both books are difficult to revisit, to dip in to. The insights or thinking they inspire come with the flow of the writing; they are not reducible to any particular content.

Wiman’s motif of underlining the absence of inspiration invites a comparison with his younger colleague, the poet and novelist Ben Lerner. In his essay The Hatred of Poetry (2016), Lerner has argued the radical inaccessibility of poetical content, one that is waymarked and forbidden precisely by the poem itself. The true poem, to Lerner, is forever absent. Lerner is dissatisfied with the contingent form every poem has to settle on, as it will inevitably fall short of the heavenly music it refers to. In this sense, it is revealing why Lerner values Dickinson over Keats:
Personally, I have never found Keatsian euphony quite as powerful as Dickinson’s dissonance. I think this is because Dickinson’s distressed meters and slant rhymes enable me to experience both extreme discord… and a virtuosic reaching for the music of the spheres.
In Dickinson, embedded into the very score of divine music, Lerner finds an immanent division and critique of poetical form, which is something his taste for poetical authenticity demands. Lerner perceives in Keats’s work a claim to a structural integrity that, to him, is simply untrue to the experience of poetry. In a spot-on digression, Lerner illustrates the divide between poetry and world as he relates the illusion of recognition when laymen hear the names of poets. I think this is phenomenologically accurate. It is telling, then, that even Lerner locates our botched attempts at identifying unknown poets within the capacity of memory, and of soul-searching, as if even those of us whose stated position would take an indifference to poetry think of it as something close to the heart.

Wiman’s stance is remarkable because he never gives up the point of the significance of poetry, even for a world that is indifferent. And this significance depends on the balance between the presence and absence of inspiration, of God, and the question of salvation. To some, perhaps, this explains Wiman as a religious poet. Indeed, Wiman is attuned to the miracle of experiencing poetical content, not in spite of the mediocrity of poetry—as with Lerner—but thanks to its genius. However, for Wiman it is a poetical demand that the poem moves beyond itself, moves beyond artistic or creative accomplishment.

So when for a poet like Lerner there is a clean separation between the divine and profane, for Wiman the poem works as an intermediary, and can unlock eternal truths within a finite context. The existence of poetry has this religious meaning, it plays a part within the soteriological scheme of things. Soteriology means the study of salvation. As a field within systematic theology it has in recent years been taken up more and more in philosophy and political theory. For Wiman, the way he discusses soteriological questions has everything to do with the motifs I commenced this review with, the absence of God and the absence of inspiration. And this implies, crucially, how the poem itself is never enough. The poem is a means to purge the poet of their literary ambitions—not to realize them—and to help its audience navigate a way toward a truth that overrides the beauty of its language. It has to make the self see the innocence and vulnerability of the soul.

One particularly moving motif from He Held Radical Light is that of the lineage of poets, of how the experience of the older poet is not just useful to their younger colleagues but eerily similar. It is as if the poets go through the same life, or at least confront the same ethical dilemma between life and art. Wiman suggests this, and more, by weaving certain patterns into his relationships with the world of poetry: his bad starts with female poets Susan Howe and Mary Arnold—after which reconciliation follows—and the way in which older male poets mentored him, notably Donald Hall, C.K. Williams, and Seamus Heaney. Especially within the context of such a short essay, and even when the writer concedes that perhaps every poet has a choice to make between art and life, these patterns stand out and remain puzzling. They remain puzzling as the poet’s dilemma is overshadowed by strange coincidences of fate, as the book relates an orchestrated scattering of illness striking, almost always cancer, among Wiman’s professional acquaintances. These are of more than superficial interest, and Wiman’s writing—and in this the new publication is more pronounced than its predecessor—works to save by remembering. And remember it does, if only for some time. Highly contingent and uncertain, this is how memory saves. Nothing illustrates this better than Wiman’s brief and entirely parenthesized recollection of another departed friend, halfway through the book, and his final struggle to remember a forgotten word from childhood. This restricted view on salvation, as always falling short, is the most radical idea from He Held Radical Light.

My Bright Abyss and He Held Radical Light—the change of pronoun between these titles indicates the bolder resolution of Wiman’s latest work. The new book is less personal, yet allows for more intimacy. For instance, in My Bright Abyss the poet Danielle Chapman, Wiman’s wife, was only indicated by her initial, while now she is named. In He Held Radical Light, Wiman sounds more at ease, surer of himself, as he is more generous to share his life with his readers. This readiness, by the unescapable paradox that Wiman analyses so well, of course means that he reveals less. Less personal, then, the condition of the absence of inspiration is attributed a more general pertinence, as indeed we see how the poets share their affliction, as human beings share their suffering. At the same time, the existence of the poem—lone bastion within this wasteland of boredom—holds a soteriological significance: The poem saves, yet it is not enough. Indeed, the poem can be soteriologically instrumental because it is not enough, and in Wiman’s reading every poem knows and enacts this insufficiency. This is Wiman’s explicit position, outlined halfway through the book within a brilliant discussion of Philip Larkin’s final poem “Aubade.” This is also the important difference between Wiman and Lerner: The poem’s very insufficiency is drawn into the matter of salvation. We might call it Wiman’s wager:
You must act as if the act itself were enough. There can be no beyond. You must spend everything on nothing, so to speak, if nothing is ever to stir for and in you.
This stance goes with Wiman’s mature and sobered position of the significance of his, or any poet’s, legacy, as he gives up on the aspiration of his youth to write a poem that would “live forever.”

Can the poet chance his salvation on writing great poems, perhaps on writing a single great poem? This question animated Ambition and Survival before, it remained in the background of My Bright Abyss, and here again it takes centre stage. “Yes and no” is Wiman’s answer, just as any religious stance is flawed in a way. (As Marilynne Robinson, a writer close to Wiman’s heart, has said, ”As soon as religion draws a line around itself, it becomes false.”) Ultimately, the poet has to risk it all on the creative life itself and suspend their share of this finished article that would last forever. To this truth, between these two incomparably accomplished works, perhaps My Bright Abyss will still bear stronger testimony. It successor, however, certainly benefits from its eerie assemblage of poetical recurrences within the lives of poets to bring out the soteriology of remembrance.