David Samuels: My Troubles, and Yours
David Samuels is a journalist and writer, but also the editor of Harper's Magazine and a contributor to the New Yorker and The Atlantic. His reports established him as one of the major figures of American literary journalism. He has published two books at The New Press in 2008: Only Love Can Break Your Heart, an eclectic collection of his articles which offer a nuanced portayal of the United States in the 1990's; and The Runner, a fascinating account of James Hogue's life, who got into the prestigious Ivy League under a false identity.
To whom am I identical? I am identical to no one. I am identical to myself. Yet, at the same time, it is amusingly difficult to prove either of these propositions in any satisfying way, which for me at least is where writing comes in. I feel lucky every day that the symbol-making and decoding functions of the human brain allows me to engage in a form of play that can result in the creation of a thing that exists entirely apart from me, a field of atoms charged by the magnetic tension of form and argument, or voice and plot, spanned by the wonder of a narrative rainbow that can be called into being by the idea or theory that something happened.
Novels, books, are a kind of displaced person. They are charming, enlightening, frustrating, annoying, dishonest, unfair, ungrateful. They act as screens for our projections, and we find ourselves imagining things very vividly that aren’t true, or were never actually said, even though we swear that we can remember them. It’s something like psychotherapy, or swimming, or masturbation, or meditation, or medication, or rowing. It involves inhabiting the part of the reader, which makes its own specific demands in return for the pleasure of inhabiting a certain place.
I have spent my own writing life trying to use the time-honored dialogue between author and reader to tell stories about people who imagine themselves to be novels, or characters in novels. The logic by which such people put themselves together compels the rest of us in ways that we don’t understand, because it crosses wires in our brains. I find these characters fascinating. They are narcissists and sociopaths of a common type, for whom stories are real, and real people are only characters in stories.
I believe that this form of self-imagination that might have been felt as a low-grade fever by hundreds or maybe thousands of people has become a full-blown epidemic in societies where social media has become the glue of daily self-imagination and the great narratives of religion and national culture and socialism with a human face are now only punch-lines to jokes. I blame Google and Facebook and Twitter. I blame the EU. I blame writers for not being urgent enough about their work, and not paying enough attention to their readers.
And think of what happens to those of us who are stuck between stories. Think of the kids who are leaving Europe by the thousands to build a jihadist paradise in Syria and Iraq, and remake the map of the world. They want a story that feels real to them, a story they can believe in. They want to go back in time to when people were pure and decent and true. They are working within the same narratives of making the future into the past that captured the imaginations of the young fascists and communists who fed tens of millions of people into giant meat-grinders.
So, don’t be racist, sexist, and xenophobic. Build better schools and nicer playgrounds. But the cure for our troubles lies elsewhere. As writers and storytellers, it is easy, or should be easy, to see ourselves in orange jumpsuits in a filthy basement dungeon, or in the faces of the martyred cartoonists who loved laughter and hated cant. But is that who we are? The relief we might find in the affirmative should make us suspicious. We are writers and readers, not characters in novels. We suffer from the same anxieties that torment the people who want to kill us. Like them, we are yearning and indeterminate products of the freedom to create ourselves from scratch. Today’s most prominent killers seek to stifle uncertainty and doubt by returning to the imagined space of 7th century Arabia, where people who they can imagine as looking like them, and thinking like them, are restored to their rightful place at the center of human history, which is only a fiction authored by a God whose words alone have meaning, a God who demands absolute obedience, which is to say the annihilation of the freely chosen play in which writers and readers like to engage. We are right to be horrified by that prospect, even as we recognize the flimsiness of our own playful constructions, which insist that it is our right not to be alone.
Pour citer cette ressource :
David Samuels, "David Samuels: My Troubles, and Yours", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), août 2015. Consulté le 07/12/2023. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/entretiens-et-textes-inedits/david-samuels-my-troubles-and-yours