Leslie Kaplan - Les outils
traductions/translations - The importance of jumping

“Literature begins at the moment when literature becomes a question” Maurice Blanchot

Andreas Vermehren Holm : I attended the reading you gave at Gothenburg Poetry Festival November 2010, and the lecture you gave at Litterär gestaltning a couple of days after. Needless to say : I became extremely inspired, and not only by your fundamental approach to language and writing, the material of your work, but also of the easiness and serenity with which you described the question of responsibility and ethics in writing and the acute need for political awareness. I have, in my approach to this conversation, focused on four of your books : L’excès-l’usine (1982), Les Outils (2003), Toute ma vie j’ai été une femme (2008), and Louise, elle est folle (2011) - which I enjoyed performed by Frédérique Loliée et Elise Vigier , the theatrical duo which also performed Toute ma vie, at the stage of La Maison de la Poesie, Paris. I must say that the experience of Louise, elle est folle on stage, was an experience of explosive communication. But concerning your work with experience as a concrete material, as a material for the work of the writing, also related to perception in language and the conception of language, you have described the experience related to L’excès-l’usine as the experience of an emptying of language, an experience of no experience at all, which made language seem false, which made language lie ?

Leslie Kaplan : Well, we can start with the question of experience, after all you do have to start somewhere, and that is exactly where you do start, with what you have experienced, what you have felt and thought, etcetera. Experience is a very important word for me, but it is not something that is given immediately, I think it has something to do with feeling and thinking, let’s say : elaboration. One has to work through the experience in order to make it an experience. This is something that Freud and others have certainly understood, because sometimes you can go through something, which you never want to think about any more, but I think it is something that in any case has always been there. It is not easy to really come to terms with how you live and what you live with all the time. I think, for me, that words and literature are a way of making experience full, giving it real meaning.
Now, on the other hand, there are many factors that, let’s try and formulate it in a way that is not totally paranoid, very simply make experience empty. First of all, the fact that if you are somebody, let’s say a person, who is very open to the world, the world is in any case always much greater, much bigger and much stronger than you are as an individual person, of course you are going to be totally drowned, so you choose and come to terms with it, that is one thing. And then there is also the fact that society -– and this is at least my way of seeing things and of course it is a political statement -– tends to empty experience, tends to substitute what is really felt by a person with something that is literally unreal. That is certainly why there is all this talk in my play about the reality show where, for money, for gifts, or to just be seen on TV, people eat cockroaches during a TV show.

There is a sort of paradox : when it is a big thing to do something that is so horrible, and that, since you are supposed to do it, you cannot really consider horrible. This is a typical example, a very symbolic one, of the question of making an experience real or on the contrary emptying it. I do think words are all about that. Poetry and prose, literature is a way of finding words, because you do have to find them, you do have to invent them, even though they exist already. Words usually exist, but you have to find the right words in order to make an experience mean something, in order to make it matter. This is almost the essence of literature to me.

AVH : The concrete experience of the concrete material. But concerning the choice of material in relation to this matter, there is almost a commenting dimension in some of your dialogues. I am thinking in particular of Les mots et les choses where the two women are discussing the television broadcast “Queen for a day”, and where the total absurdity of the words used in the language of the program reveals itself, through their dialogue, as a result of their dialogue.
But in relation to L’excès-l’usine I remember reading a conversation between you and Marguerite Duras, with the whole description of the table which is a table, but not a table at the same time – it is well known that you worked on a factory from ‘68 to ‘71 ?
LK : All sorts of different factories.

AVH : Could you describe the work with a material so concretely bound to a period of time, where certain events occurred but a material that nonetheless is the material of experience ?

LK : What I can say about that experience, the experience of L’excès-l’usine, is that I was not at all prepared to find what I did find there. I went to work on a factory as a political gesture, I did of course think that it wouldn’t be a “bed of roses”, as you can say in English, but for me it didn’t mean anything specific even though I had of course read about factories, etcetera.
I was really astonished with what I should call the concrete experience of alienation. It was very concrete, very material. As a matter of fact, just to make a sort of bridge, in L’excés-l’usine, which came out in ‘82 but was written a few years before, I finished it in ‘80, there is the sentence : “on est folle” (Man er skør), so now we have “on est folle” and “elle est folle”, “Louise, elle est folle” in 2011, which just goes to show that there is a certain continuity in experience with the research and the work on this question.
For me, when I tried to write about it afterwards, afterwards because when I went there I had no idea that I was ever going to write a book about it, my idea was to participate, first in the factory, the movement there with workers and intellectuals, and then in what happened, which astonished everybody of course, the events of ‘68.
It was not at all predicted. But when I did sit down to write about it, this is really what came out, this language, this book. The material of L’excés-l’usine was really the experience of being in the factory, being on the assembly line, being in the corridors, going to work on a bicycle, all these sorts of things. The work was to try and find the words, to try and find in words, what was the meaning of it all.
There is, I believe, many ways, and they continuously exist, to write about this kind of experience. What I did know when I started to write was that I didn’t want to write à la Zola, even if Zola is a great writer. But it couldn’t be like that because of what I had felt, myself. I wanted to give a mental picture of what you could feel when you were in the factory ; the emotional experience of alienation.
There is no mentioning of the strike in the factory in L’excès-l’usine. I write about the strike in another book, from 1996, the first in the series Depuis mantenant. In that book you have the events of ‘68 in the factory. But I really wanted to write about what you felt in the factory, what you could feel and what you could have felt.

AVH : How did you find the exact words for the experience ?

LK : You find the words at your table, when you write. I remember a very strong feeling the day I wrote a very simple sentence : “les chiffons sont faibles.” (the rags are weak)(Kludene er svage) They were in a big pile, used and thrown away. Suddenly it was obvious that this sentence, which of course had something to do with my own feeling of total weakness and was connected to me feeling like a little piece of cloth thrown in a corner. But suddenly I felt that everybody could feel that ; this feeling of total weakness, even though nobody in the factory would use those words, because nobody would. That was it.
Another really important thing is that when the book came out in ‘82, there were many programs, meetings one the radio and television, meetings with union leaders, people who worked in a factory. It was the beginning of Mitterrand.
Basically, everybody was totally shocked, but at the same time I was invited and people were interested.
Well, what you do is that you exaggerate. As a matter of fact, there is a little in the conversation with Marguerite Duras, because the question was : what are we going to do if it is as you write ? How are we going to cope with it ? That was a question which was asked, but that is exactly not the question for a writer.
A writer writes, asks questions, and then eventually people do things about it. I consider working eight hours on an assembly line as being simply not human. This is something I have never given up.

AVH : I am thinking of Hannah Arendt in relation to the question of the perverted discourse, the discourse of the production society in which all things serve in terms of function and use. Arendt describes homo faber left with meaninglessness in the midst of usefulness and how, I quote : “utilitarianism never can find the answer to the question G. E. Lessing once put to the utilitarian philosophers of his time : “And what, if you please, is the use of use ?” I have been thinking of L’excès-l’usine, and not to quote the apostrophe itself, but as a very precise, almost iconic, representation of some of the philosophical lines in the work of Hannah Arendt ?

LK : Actually, I read Arendt after I wrote L’excés-l’usine. Mainly, I would say, because she was translated very late in France. And I think that was because her concept of totalitarianism did not please the people on the Left who should have been her allies. Well, this is a complicated story I think. She died in ‘75 and was translated into French more or less at that time, which is really incredibly late when you think about it, quite absurd actually. Many people on the Left thought that her concept of totalitarianism would help American capitalism, because it accused Russia, accused the Soviet Union, placed Nazism and Stalinism on the same level, analysing it on equal terms, etcetera. They did not see the completely revolutionary position she had taken and developed. Now, of course, that has certainly changed. But back then people on the Left kept repeating, as if they felt the need to, that there was a difference between Nazism and Stalinism.

AVH : Regarding the material of the work and the emptying of language in terms of political issues : when Sarkozy states that “the most important thing in a democracy is to be re-elected” – that is another example of an emptying of experience. The word democracy carries no meaning if that is the approach to it, if that is the context of usage, it’s eroded, and there are many of these kinds of issues in today’s political world ; emptying through repetition with no intentions behind, emptying words through the manipulation of words in political doctrines, etcetera.
I am thinking about your fundamental approach to language in, for instance, the dialogues of Toute ma vie, let mots et les choses, Louise, elle est folle. There is a constant questioning of every utterance ; it is like the motor, the drive, the joy of it. The utterances are not becoming invalid in their meanings, but the meanings are merging into one another, from one mouth to the other, constantly shivering with new significance. And the basis for this movement is the presence of a “we” ; “we” as in more than one voice. What is your conception of your approach to language and the importance of it as such in a democracy like the one we are currently living in ?

LK : It seems to me that democracy is really a regime, a system that is without any absolute ground. Democracy is a state of being where people have to live with each other without being able to refer to a king or any higher power. It really has to do with the act of constantly making it liveable. So I think the matter of questioning language is really a matter of taking part in the whole idea of democracy – even if it is not necessarily obvious, and no one thinks about the questioning of language 24/7 – you can’t not be alert in a democracy, you can’t not be conscious.
Even though it is very tiring for everyone, this is the way it is. If you fall asleep on a certain issue, somebody is going to pick it up in the wrong way. You can’t fall asleep on a question, and you can never give up. It is a problem and we see it every day, in France just two days ago for instance. Mr. Sarkozy’s official “spokesman”, Claude Guéant said that maybe in France, French people are getting too tired of having too many people who aren’t French and they don’t feel at home in their own country anymore. * Immediately someone who is alert, Marine Le Pen, the daughter of Le Pen, said : Well why does he not come to the Front national ? Which means : why doesn’t he come to the extreme Right, because this is what we have been saying all the time.
This is of course a very little detail. But you can’t just let it pass. Because a detail like that, a remark in the media like that, is creating something that has to do with hate. There is no other word.

AVH : The way you use dialogue is a very direct way to create the expectations of thought ; it is almost aggressive in its presentation of the creation of meaning. People are forced to constantly position themselves.

LK : I think, I really think, and this is deep down, that language is dialogue. I think that even when nobody is there, you are in a dialogue.

AVH : Every person is influenced by others in an inescapably way, no voice is ever isolated.

LK : Exactly. It is really part of language. And even more part of the written language. Proust has a sentence, which for me is really great, where he says :  »On écrit toujours dans une langue étrangère« (One always writes in a foreign language.) And this is a very interesting statement from someone who took the French language to its maximum. So why did he say that ? I think he means that a writer is always in a way inventing a new language. He is always in a process, he never stops. Language is never something that is given once and for all, it is always in the process of making, of becoming. And this is very, very important. It also means that, like I have said, you are always in the process of dialogue.
Hannah Arendt says that too, though in a completely different way. When she returned to Germany after the war for the first time, and afterwards reflected upon it, she ends up asking her self – I quoted this in my book Fever (2005) too : “How come some people did not become Nazis ?” This is a good question.
She says : it was not because of principles, it was not because of moral reasons, no, it was because they did not want to live with a murderer : themselves.
It really shows that one is two, that you are two.
It shows that if you had accepted to become a Nazi, you were living with a murderer inside yourself.
And some people did just not want that.
For me it shows that being conscious is the fact that you are two, the fact that you are talking to yourself is the fact that makes you conscious.

AVH : Regarding the dialogical approach to language, and the view of the whole notion of dialogics as representing important and fundamental human values, I would like to discuss the work of Bachtin in relation to your own work, what you in Les Outils describes as thinking with other works, the works of others ?

LK : I discovered Bachtin at a time when I was very absorbed by Dostojevski. I had returned to DostoÏevski when I felt the need to write novels, so I reread a lot of his work, and I fell upon Bachtin’s work, which I hadn’t read, and I was really very thrown over. To me he was enormous. I wrote an article on Dostoïevski, "L’expérience du meurtre", published in Les Outils, and I quoted Bachtin. I think he has a very concrete way of showing the reader the inventiveness of DostoÏevski, how he always writes about people who are on the point of doing things, and who have a language going on in their heads all the time. Understanding this about any of Dostoïevski’s characters, I think it shows how completely modern he is.

AVH : Not to speak of his brilliant analysis of the sentences, their origin, belonging either to the implicit author or the hero, or both in the same sentence as a hybrid, the dialogism. The experience of the dialogue is something that comes in a plurality of forms, for example in my reading of Louise, elle est folle and Toute ma vie j’été une femme ; the experience of the constant movement of every word, how they are constantly adapting each others sentences into their own, small fragments of formulations, continuing and continuing until the breaking point but pushing the envelope. However, when you realise that what you are experiencing as a moment of wildly living discussion, you also realise that this is not a part of the text. It might be a strategy, but could it the very simple and yet extremely powerful effect of the progressive dialogue ? The words become completely alive. It is very hard to fix this point of movement and progression in the text, in the dialogue as such, it is a more general point, a modus of existing. That became obvious with Louise, elle est folle performed on the stage. The value of the movement of dialogue, the constant repositioning, the openness…

LK : It is true that we, the two actresses and I, have a very close relationship, and I really think the two actresses understand the way I write, and maybe even better than I do, which is after all normal, because you are always interpreted by somebody else. The example you just gave for instance, I could never have said it.
I do think the whole question for a writer is to make the words alive, to keep them alive, to bring them more to life.
Of course, if you go one step further, it could have to do with complete madness, because as we all know, when you are in a delirium the WORDS become the THINGS.
But that’s the whole question. This is certainly a vital point, a very crucial point.

AVH : I will just quote a dialogue of Blanchot : "... there must be at least two to say it." / "I know. It is necessary that we are two. " / "But why two ? Why two speeches to say one and the same thing ? " / "Because it’s always the other person who says it."

LK : That’s perfect.

AVH : I would like to discuss the notion of dialectic process contra dialogical process as well as your idea of the jump ?

LK : For me the jump comes from Kafka. He writes about jumping out from the lines of the assassins. Writing, he says, in his Journal, in the year 1914, January 27th, is jumping out from the world of the assassins, jumping out from the line of the assassins.
Now, he doesn’t say anything else, so of course you stay with this, and you wonder, and you wonder, and you wonder, but somehow you have understood that this is exactly what you felt. In my book Le Psychanalyste, and in many other places, I have said that the word assassins have a different meaning for everybody. Of course, for Kafka you immediately think of his father, the world of the Austro Hungarian empire, his own psychosis. It can be all sorts of things, it can be women ; it doesn’t matter. The question is how you experience this act of jumping. Kafka calls it an “observation that is an act” (in german : Tat-Beobachtung, see what Blanchot writes in the chapter “Kafka et l’exigence de l’oeuvre”, in his book L’espace littéraire). To go back to the very beginning of this conversation, when I spoke of writing the sentence, Les chiffons sont faibles, I think I had the experience of a jump when writing that sentence. And further more in relation to L’excès-l’usine when I wrote down “on” [man], not “je” or “il”, but “on” – somebody else could write “I” and it would be a jump, that is not the issue. I think that you know that you are creating a distance, a step that puts you apart from the things that repeat themselves. This is really what you experience in writing. Kafka put the word “jump” on it and that’s perfect, because there is a feeling of elation, of something going up, even if you have to come down again afterwards. And it contains the description of the need for something very solid on which you can place your feet and take off, and of course for a writer it is words, the words are the ground from which you jump.
It gives you something very concrete, something very material, where you can experience the strength of that, the distance. That definitely has to do with dialogue, the dialogics, because it shows that you are not of one piece. There are at least two of you, and if you are Dostojevski there is at least a hundred of you in the same time. You are somebody who is there, then you leave, but at the same time you know what you have left, where you came from. There is a process of being two in one. That is the question of dialogue, the question of being two.

AVH : The question of ethics in writing, the risk that is connected to this leap, to this jump, the whole question of turning to and turning away from, apropos the apostrophe, what is your conception of the other in the moment of writing or your conception of the other ones work ?

LK : It seems to me that the great thing about language, the human thing about language, is that every word, and it is almost banal to say it, every word is a world.
So whatever you think, and you can think of a table, of sugar, of coffee, you can think of anything, and literally you can go everywhere with this. I mean others are included in literally every word. This is something that has been experienced since the beginning of the last century, Joyce for example, of course partly as a result of the Freudian discovery, but not only, suddenly began to use words in an associative way, and understood that every word really is just a potential. Actually the other is something that in a way doesn’t have to be another person, a public, a reader, even though, of course, they are there and you do want them to be there, but they are also in the very words themselves.
This is how it works.
When I wrote for the theatre, I wrote directly for Fred and Elise for example, and of course I thought of them when I wrote, I knew them, and I knew it was going to be played on a scene, etcetera, but at the same time I am fully persuaded that anything I can write, any sentence can become something they can do with. Maybe they have given me confidence in the fact that every sentence written immediately can be given away.
It is really a question of a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.

AVH : In relation to the X in Louise, elle est folle, an X for uncertainty and Sex, I have been thinking of Jean Paul Sartre’s X for existentialism and the for ever unknown nature of the humans. There is an amusing connection between your X and his ?
But in relation to the whole question of the political responsibility of the writer – one does not need to be a political or an engaged writer in the ways of Sartre, but merely a writer, and this is Blanchot : a writer and aware of being in relation to others, if not in any other way, through the very usage of language. What is your notion of responsibility and ethics in the moment of writing ?

LK : This is exactly where the question of jumping is so important. I think the writer certainly has a great responsibility, but it seems to me that the writer is first of all responsible towards language. And by that I mean towards every aspect of language, which again means first and foremost what language contains of potential, possibility and fiction, which means that even when the writer writes about what is going on, the writer is really very much concerned with and responsible of the fact that things could be different. That is something that is included in language. Anything you say contains the possibility of something else. Something else could be, of course, another world, something else could be another regime and something else could be another word.
This is my conception, even though I have never spoken of it like this before, but my conception of an ethics would be : you can’t want to have the last word. You can’t say that it is finished and this is the only way you can talk. A part of language is to leave things open. A part of language is to be in perpetual dialogue, and therefore in perpetual openness. This is the basis of the ethics of writing for me.
Whatever you write about, it is really rather complicated, because when you write about someone who is horrible, how are you going to do that ? Obviously, you would want to finish it, there is enough going on, not to speak of Gaddafi, where you really want to finish.
Just to challenge what I say about leaving things open. But you have to find a way, if you are writing and not just giving information, where there is a possibility, something possible. This is the ethics.

AVH : And the emblematic X in relation to the X of Sartre ?

LK : As a matter of fact I did not think of Sartre. The X is representing the whole thing about sexuality. I just think the way it is spoken about today is too silly for words. But in relation to La folie [galskaben], the fiction : everybody is concerned with madness, and writers, like Kafka, they invent things, and of course it is a way to jump. Becoming an insect is after all an invention.

AVH : The invention of the insect is also a way of getting claws, for example, to jump and to come back with a weapon. But to quote Sartre : “If you observe the terms of the human life as terms as such, that is defined by an X, that is the X of the humans, but not by their natural context, their positive determination, than you deal with another form of human nature. A term-based nature”

LK : The only human nature is to not have a nature.
I have always thought that there are two things. Exactly because of my conception of the ethics of writing, I refuse a naturalistic point of view or a romantic point of view. Either you are completely determined or you are an individual against the world, that was the romantic point of view, and I think that there is an interaction, and you don’t exist without others. I mean, that is a part of the human fact, from the very beginning, a child for example can not develop without human environment. That has to do with dialogue, which again has to do with others.

AVH : The impossible position of saying “I”, the total desubjectification, to the two bodies on the stage in Toute ma vie and Louise, elle est folle. Can you describe the movement, if one can speak of a such, from the impossible “I” to the “we” ? From “on est folle” to “elle est folle” ?

LK : When I was writing L’exces-l’usine I couldn’t do without the “On”. It was absolutely fundamental ; really a way of showing that you don’t exist on a subjective level, showing that you can’t make things your own in such a world. In the book that came after L’excés-l’usine, which is Le Livre des ciels (1983), there is an “I”, but it is a very abstract “I”. It was vital for me to try and make the “I” real, or one could say make the character more and more real, because I think writing has do with life and it was something that was very important for me.
When I started to write novels, Le Criminel (1987) for example, I had to have two characters, simply because there is a movement in time ; there is a beginning to the story, there is a middle, and an end.
It was important for me to leave the world of the factory where time does not exist. A world you could call eternal. And here the word eternal is not something desirable. And then with the novel Le pont de Brooklyn(Brooklyn Bridge) (1986), and the ones that came after, it was really a question of inventing, a question of searching for and searching through characters that would not be a sort of classical characters, which represented a certain given aspect of the world, but who were living in a world where words and language went through them. It was very important for me to find a way of using characters. I think that in a way, even though what I am writing now is a novel, it was an obvious step for me to do something with dialogue for the theatre. There is something that was always there, which is questioning language, questioning the obvious use of words and the obvious in general. As for the book L’excès-l’usine, nothing is more obvious than a factory, everybody knows what it is, everybody walks by it, etcetera, etcetera, but it is not obvious, it is not obvious at all. That was a motive, for sure.
I decided that I had to write this book, that I wanted to write about my experience, ten years after, that is. At the same time with the decision of writing came the fact that a factory is not a factory. Or to put it like Stein : a factory is a factory is a factory is a factory. You get mixed up on different levels.
And now that I have said the word level, I have always tried to embrace as many levels as possible. Always, always, always. That’s a part of the description of what has been constant in my work from "On est folle" to "Louise, elle est folle".
In Louise, elle est folle , the show, the text is open in the way of a presence of a million levels existing simultaneously.
Even in the scene created by Yves Bernard, there is the representation of all the different levels of text. He constructed the scene as a page. You can go from up to down and down to up. The question of levels has to do with what is modern and what isn’t, taking in account all the different levels of language.
We can not, not take all the different levels into account since, just to put it very simple, we are conscious of the fact of the unconscious. Voilà.

AVH : “On ne sait pas, on ne peut pas savoir”.

LK : When I talk of levels, I talk of the question of paradox, because “On ne sait pas, on ne peut pas savoir,” the positive is the negative. If you feel it, you can feel as a complete negative ; you’re nothing, you don’t know anything. And at the same time you can change it into an ethics. Okay, I will not be sure, I will not be dogmatic. This is a paradox. I use the word paradox ; I know it is not very precise, it means that things are always at least two things at the same time. When you are weak, you have to make your weak point your strong point. But your strong point can be your weak point. This is a way of living. It certainly has to do with democracy, nothing is for ever or once and for all, at a given place, or at least, if a place is given, that place can be changed.

©Leslie Kaplan, mis en ligne le mercredi 7 novembre 2012

A conversation between Leslie Kaplan and Andreas Vermehren Holm, March 18 th 2011 published in swedish in Ord & Bild n°3 and in danish in Trappe Tusind n° 6

experience • writing •
Chercher dans le site | SPIP Plan du site | Suivre la vie du site RSS 2.0 | à propos | contact | liens | crédit photos |