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Becoming No One

Par Gwenaëlle Aubry
Publié par Clifford Armion le 15/01/2013

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"The writing project came as the answer to a question that can, in retrospect, be formulated as follows: How can we grieve for a melancholy person, a person who was grieving himself? How can we get to grips with the absence of someone who was never really present?"

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A novelist and a philosopher, Gwenaëlle Aubry studied at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris and Trinity College in Cambridge. She published her first novel, Le diable détacheur [The Untarnished Devil] (Actes Sud), in 1999, followed in 2002 and 2003 by L’Isolée [Secluded] (Stock) et L’Isolement [Solitary Confinement] (Stock) and Notre vie s’use en transfigurations [Our Lives Lost in Transfigurations] (Actes Sud, 2007), writen while in residency at the Villa Medicis in Rome.


Outis, “nobody”, is, as we know, the word for Ulysses’ ruse (the mêtis) in Song IX of the Odyssey: it is by giving the name of the absence as his identity that Ulysses saves his skin and escapes from being named and charged.

Personne [No One] is also the title of my next-to-last novel. And this title, in this case, is neither a mask nor a trick: because what is at stake in this book [“en jeu” but also “en je”] – in its object, or “subject”, as much as in its history or in the very process of its writing, is a triple presence-absence: that of melancholy, of grief, and finally, of the subject writing to himself.

Personne is, first of all, the portrait of a man without self, a man whose “I” was more of a “we”, or a “them”: a place both empty and populated, inhabited by a multitude of masks that the A-Z primer summons, one by one, from Antonin Artaud to Zelig. Personne is also the portrait of a melancholy man. The precise name of the illness that my father suffered from (since Personne is about him) was only revealed to me much later, in the form of three letters: PMD. And it could be said that I have done nothing else, with the alphabet primer, than to deploy these three letters, PMD, from A to Z.

The fact is that I was only able to write this book after this form, which was both constraining and liberating, had imposed itself. It seemed to be the most faithful to my “subject” – this multiple, off-center subject that I was trying to describe – and at the same time it stood in the way of intimacy. In short, it allowed me to both describe this “I” who was also a “we” or a “them”, and to do so from the point of view of an “I” who was de-centered as well from my own self. It is the alphabet primer that allowed me to respond to the enigmatic injunction written on the manuscript I had found after my father’s death: “make into a novel”.

Indeed Personne is, in some ways, a third book. It was born of a text my father wrote during the last months of his life – called Le Mouton noir mélancolique [The Black Melancholy Sheep] and subtitled Un Spectre dérangeant [A Disturbing Ghost]. Contrary to what has often been said, this text was not a private journal. Indeed, it was, in every way, the opposite (a “public journal”); first, because it was written with the desire to be published; also, and mostly, because what could be read in it was a type of exteriority, of non-coincidence with oneself. It was not the story of someone’s life, no more than it was the confession of some important secret, but it was the exhausting and relentless quest for a mask, for a fixed persona, for the great fiction of an identity in which one could finally reassemble oneself.

The writing project came as the answer to a question that can, in retrospect, be formulated as follows: How can we grieve for a melancholy person, a person who was grieving himself? How can we get to grips with the absence of someone who was never really present? Still – or perhaps for this very reason – I never wanted Personne to be a “novel about grief”, no more than I wanted it to be an “intimate story”. I did not want to sculpt a kolossos, a death mask, or a gravestone for someone who had refused them. I tried instead to set the book in that indefinite place where the manuscript was already floating: between literature and madness, illness and health (“rude health”), presence and absence. Besides, the absence was no more absolute than the presence, since it happened without silence. A voice resounded in that manuscript I was reading and re-reading, and it had to be heard. I constructed my own text around it, like an echo chamber. But I did it as well around the figures that this text summoned: there were indeed, in that manuscript, recurrent names, key-images of, mostly, childhood figures (James Bond, the Clown, the Pirate...), which became the entries for my alphabet primer. They provided me with a solution, the same way they had provided one for him: They acted as magnetic fields around which my novel, little by little, organized itself. To obey the injunction that had been made to me, this enigmatic “make into a novel”, was to continue this movement, this fiction, or this delirium – call it what you will – and summon, to accompany them, other persona and other characters. Everything happened as if, beyond the absence, the presence could only be approached by way of language and images – more than memory and narrative.

But to say this is to suppose that I also became absent from myself. And this is the third form of presence-absence that I would like to examine in conclusion: the presence-absence of the subject writing to himself.

In Le Livre à venir [The Book to Come], Maurice Blanchot, talking about the urge to write, quotes Kafka: “It is a mandate. I can only, because of my nature, assume a mandate that no one gave me. It is in this contradiction, it is always only in a contradiction, that I can live.” And Blanchot thus notes: “It is not a mandate; he cannot assume it; no one gave it to him, so he must become no one in order to accept it”.

That one must become no one in order to write, I also believe. But what does it mean? And what shall we call this no one (“personne”) or person? This missing noun or pronoun can perhaps be found at the conjunction of the “I”, the “we”, and the “self”. The “we”, first, insofar as we can only write if we are open to all the others who say “I” in our voice. There is a type of defection or deposition of the self here, which is also the reactivation of voices that are usually reduced to silence by its authority, and, with them, of hidden or unexplored possibilities. A multiple future that is also a virtual future: the exploration of all the possible identities and worlds that everyone gives up in order to become an identifiable person, a man or a woman of quality. This virtual becoming – this becoming-ourselves – goes hand in hand, I believe, with becoming impersonal – becoming-he or oneself. As Deleuze once wrote, literature “begins only when a third person is born in us that strips us of the power to say I”.

And yet there is a point beyond which we can no longer pursue this parallel between the melancholy person and the writer. If both of them have in common the fact that they do not unite with themselves, that, to quote Michaux, they are not alone in their own skin, it still is the case that while the melancholy person suffers, the writer acts. To write is to activate a great power. Or it is, more precisely, to re-appropriate one’s own power. Thus the “we” and the “he” or the “oneself” are still contained within an “I” (whether one writes in the first person or not), or within the subject who, when he writes, is capable of form and style – capable of that by which the text is no longer just the revelation of something intimate and secret, but becomes words that the reader feels in turn could have been his or her own: where another “I” sees itself and recombines, yet again, with another “we” and another “they”.

Cette ressource a été publiée dans le cadre de la quatrième saison du festival "Walls and Bridges", organisé par la Villa Gillet, qui s'est tenu à New York du 11 au 20 octobre 2012.

Pour citer cette ressource :

Gwenaëlle Aubry, "Becoming No One", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), janvier 2013. Consulté le 18/04/2024. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/entretiens-et-textes-inedits/becoming-no-one