LANGUAGE, VIOLENCE, AND THE SPACE BETWEEN
Constance Debré in conversation with Dorothée Perret
The literary work of Constance Debré is both complex and precise. Her early novels (Playboy, Love Me Tender, and Nom)—contemporary stories written in the first person in which characters defy gender and class norms in an outdated society—blur the lines of affect and give the sense of an autobiographical trilogy. The strength of her language lies in its frankness and transparency, where philosophical questions about recurring themes of justice and violence are dissected with exactitude. On the occasion of Offenses, her new novel just published by Flammarion, Debré talks with PARIS LA editor Dorothée Perret about these themes, with a slight detour regarding belief in God and the afterlife.
Dorothée Perret: In your 2018 novel Playboy, you mention that the language of snobs, like that of the poor, “takes revenge on vocabulary.”1 Do you think this concept of revenge shared by the poorest and the wealthiest in society characterizes the human reality in your work, or is it merely two different social classes finding common ground?
Constance Debré: It’s not about being rich or poor. In the United States, the main distinguishing factor in a single class is money, and then there are communities. In France it isn’t any better, and quite astonishingly, two hundred and fifty years after the Revolution, it’s the subtle layering of classes that has very little to do with money. I’ve never had much money, from not much to almost none, nor did my parents. Yet, due to my milieu of origin, I have no connection with either the working class nor the middle bourgeoisie. But social classes exist and don’t exist. They allow us to see certain aspects of an individual, but no one can be reduced to their class, a concept that’s always a bit crude. What truly matters, fortunately, is the life we choose for ourselves rather than our parents’ background, grandparents, or aunt from Bretagne.
Returning to your question, I remember that passage from Playboy. I was highlighting a trait—aristocratic, let’s say—of allowing oneself to speak freely, to swear, and all the better if it shocks. I believe this has a connection both to privilege and to violence—the militaristic aspect of aristocrats who disdain the merchant class and the conventional aspects of the bourgeoisie. It’s the opposite of the bourgeoisie, which is filled with conventions and wants to speak politely—a violence it imposes on itself but, more importantly, on others, those who aren’t educated enough to speak politely—and is terrified of “what will people say?” But, of course, we don’t care about aristocrats, who thankfully no longer exist. What matters, and what I wanted to portray, is the violence of language, no matter where it comes from. I adore it; it’s precious. It’s rage, a burst of laughter, a defiant gesture. It’s what all the bathroom graffiti in the world says. It always opposes conventions and those who enforce them and benefit from them, the authorities, whoever they may be. Notice how parents, teachers, police officers, and presidents always forbid and repress when someone addresses them in a certain way.
In Love Me Tender (Flammarion, 2020; Semiotext(e), 2022) you delve into the question of a filial love in rupture with society. You ask yourself (and us) if the love between a mother and her son couldn’t break, just like any other love story. It’s a challenging question, but one that I perceived more as a celebration of life. Do you agree with this interpretation?
This question is posed by the narrator in a very particular context, at a time when her bond with her son is violently attacked by her ex in court, and thus by society. In concrete terms, society suspends this bond, and she is, in fact, rejected by her son. She tries to understand what is happening, these events that, in light of the words “unconditional love,” would be unthinkable. So she thinks maybe it’s okay if it ends, if there’s a rupture, maybe it’s possible, contrary to what everyone says, that there could be a rupture. She tries to find the concepts to make sense of what is happening. And in doing so, she realizes that the question has never been asked. That merely posing the question seems extravagant, audacious, or even downright forbidden. Yes, indeed, it is a celebration of life in the sense that seeking to understand the rupture, to break the idea that there can’t be a rupture between a mother and a son when one is imposed on her, is accepting reality. So she rejects the romantic figures of pain, victimhood, and the grieving mother who would throw herself into the Seine or fall into depression, suicide, and death. There is also something else besides faith in life; there is faith in justice. She is not guilty; the guilty ones are those who accuse her, and she knows it, so she refuses to act like a defeated person. It’s a matter of principle, related to what is just, to violence, to truth.
Finally, with Nom and Offenses (Flammarion, 2022 and 2023), you establish, with varying degrees of distance from your own experiences, a critique of a society lost in falsehood, in which the right order between good and evil is not easily, if at all, reversed. Do you hold hope that literature has the power to change societal norms?
No hope. This is the wretched state of man without God, as Pascal put it. I believe that everything is false, that it’s a hallmark of human societies, and furthermore, everything is soon to be over. Societies are becoming increasingly ugly, although, of course, more and more comfortable—which is, let’s say, the Devil’s cunning. But that doesn’t make me particularly sad. I believe it’s humanity’s story to deal with death, loss, and evil. On the scale of each individual life, but also on the scale of the world and societies. It’s the impurity of humanity, the impurity of our history. I think it’s up to each of us to try to be somewhat dignified in our participation in this thing called humanity. Because we are also that, each one of us, the entirety of humanity, something that must be taken very seriously.
Despite the misery, Pascal delves toward the light. He searches for the truth first in mathematics, then in humanity, and finally in God. What is your stance on the search for truth?
Pascal holds a profoundly pessimistic view. That’s what I particularly appreciate about him. The wretchedness of man without God. That’s mainly what he’s saying. And without God, you have, at best, a one in a billion chance of being lifted from this misery through grace. But if I were you, I wouldn’t count on it too much, and unless there’s divine intervention, humanity is just folly, filth, and violence. That seems flawless and obvious to me. I don’t have a position on the search for truth. I’m not seeking the truth; I’m not seeking salvation. Truth, grace, God—it’s all nonsense, we’re not saved by anything. God died a long time ago, and honestly, I’m fine with that; it’s clearer this way. What we have left to do is perhaps to carry ourselves somewhat decently. It’s up to each of us to craft our own definition of what that might mean. I have mine.
You haven’t yet touched on the question of religion in your books. Do you believe in this common truth that Pascal calls God?
Religion doesn’t really interest me, or even at all. I’m extremely wary of it. It’s often misguided. It ranges from shapeless sentimentality to the worst forms of violence. I have ancestors who were rabbis and pastors but, thankfully, their descendants chose to take a different path. What does interest me, as you rightly pointed out, in Christianity, is its moral vision and political philosophy. Original Christianity, because when you see what it has become, it’s truly disheartening. But to come to us since ancient times and tell us that what should be respected above all else is a miserable and marginalized man, rejected, attacked, and condemned, is a stroke of genius, a wild and beautiful political and moral reversal. Something I believe in that has nothing to do with God. From this perspective, I find that there’s an insight into humanity in Christianity that seems right to me, and behind it, an idea of humanity that aligns with mine. I believe in humanity, in universality. I believe that being a human means being concerned, deeply connected to all of humanity, to any other human being on Earth, the dead and the living, men and women, the poor, the rich, white, non-white. It’s the entirety of the human condition that is given to us from the start. And it’s this human condition, our misery, that we share with everyone, that allows us to communicate, in other words, to think.
Even though, as you say, it’s the entirety of the human condition that is given to us from the start, doesn’t this critique rather point to an institutionalized culture turned into a market-driven law? A sort of cultural industry controlled by the powerful that has lost the sense of the sacred and ritual to better penetrate the realms of consumption and communication?
To the first part of your question, of course! Everyone speaks and writes and creates art from their own experience, their own history, their own way of living, and their own thoughts. And it’s important that we see everyone, not just a majority group, or one defined by its strength, like cultured white men. Absolutely. But what I deeply wish for is that those who don’t belong to this so-called majority group can express themselves beyond the topic of their identity and not be constantly reduced to it by others. In essence, that women don’t only speak about their experience as women, or that we can’t discuss a Black writer without specifying that they’re Black and asking them to write about their experience as a Black person in a white society. The problem is that we limit the scope of expression for “minorities” by confining them to the sole expression of their experience. Art is not just the narration of experience! It’s the genius of form. Is this the exclusive domain of white men? I’m always struck by the differences in reception. A novel by a man is literature, a novel by a woman is the narrative of experience. That’s misogyny.
I’ve drifted from your question. I’m not sure what to say about the sacred and ritual. I’m not sure if those things interest me much. As for the cultural industry, I don’t know it well. Publishing is somewhat unique, protected in a way by its poverty. The main problem, but it’s not new, you can just reread La Bruyère, is stupidity. If people want to bury themselves in their phones like zombies or little robots, that’s their business. And it’s not surprising that zombies don’t rise to demand an end to being surveilled. No, they’re quite content to be tracked and reduced to consumers, like happy dogs on a leash as long as they’re given a warm basket and a bowl of kibble. It’s not going out to protest for retirement benefits or against Trump that represents any form of freedom or originality of thought, it’s stopping these idiotic phones and crappy consumption. We’ve managed to reduce cultured elites to something entirely harmless, to disconnect them from what culture has that’s emancipatory.
Do you think that justice and religion—as principles in our preservation of dignity, integrity, and salvation, whether facing God or humans—primarily appeal to individual experience?
There’s no individual experience. Nothing exists except in relation, and we ourselves exist only in relation to others. We are only that, a society. I am because there are others. Everything started going wrong with Descartes’ “cogito ergo sum.” The “sum” [“I am”] is utter nonsense. The question for a human being is to avoid being as foolish and morally ugly as possible. Overall, you could say it’s been a big failure. This ultra-comfortable era we live in—great material comfort, individual rights galore, very little violence compared to past centuries, long life, medical care for ailments of the body and soul—is one of the ugliest periods few societies have reached. What have we become? A herd without any elegance. That’s why if the end of the world is coming soon, given the ugliness of humanity, I’m not sure it’s such a sad thing after all.
The Sève magazine refers to the mystery of creation, and the sub-theme of this issue is “ghost.” Since my father’s death, I’ve received several visits from him in my sleep. These aren’t dreams but actual visits. He’s present, no longer ill, and we talk clearly. It’s even joyful. Do you believe in ghosts? And do you think we can communicate with the dead? If so, have you ever experienced it?
I don’t know. I tend not to believe in an afterlife, so to speak, but who knows? I dream a lot about the dead, about my father in recent years after dreaming a lot about my mother when I was young. Maybe they take their time to die. Maybe it takes years. And in the beginning, they’re still there. Or maybe they’re within us. We carry our dead with us, that’s for sure. That they live within us is obvious. I believe our dead might make death a bit less painful, perhaps.
- Debré’s Playboy—a prequel to Love Me Tender—was published in France by Stock. The English translation by Holly James is forthcoming from Semiotext(e).
(This conversation was originally published in French in Sève, issue 2.)