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The Decline of Identity
"What annoys us is what helps us to define ourselves.
Without upsets, no identity," - E. M. Cioran

"The Lord creates; man can recreate."- David Homel

In the course of a recent trip through the Charentes-Maritimes in western France, I accepted the hospitality of a woman whom I knew only slightly, but her kindness was great and her generosity insistent. Having spent much of the day doing intensive tourism, I retired at afternoon's end to the room she had placed at my disposal. There, I did some deep breathing and a bit of yoga, took out my notebook, and began, pen in hand, to allow the day's images and impressions to take shape in my mind. About ten minutes elapsed; scarcely had I begun to concentrate, when my hostess tapped on the door and burst gaily into the room with a pile of things to "entertain me" and "keep me busy." I don't remember all there was in the pile. Among other things: a special issue of a TV mag devoted to the civil war in Algeria, a large book of glossy photos on Swedish interior decorating, and the most recent novel by one of her favourite authors, who was definitely not one of mine.
Conversation with this woman (who, I hasten to add, is a highly likeable individual) was along much the same lines. It was impossible to stay on the same subject for more than, say, ninety seconds. And have you ever been to Egypt? Oh, it's splendid, absolutely splendid. What about India, have you been there? No, neither have I, but I'm dying to go; I've been doing snatches of reading on Hinduism to try and get the feel of the place. Yes, I was in New York once, but only for two days, that's not enough, it was on the way back from a group excursion to New Orleans, I must say I was a bit disappointed by Louisiana, the bayous and all, I found the landscape a bit dismal. Ah yes, the complete works of Cioran-I bought the book but I haven't gotten around to opening it yet...it's so hard to find the time! But have you read the latest Coelo novel? And that new Chinese film, uh, what's the title? You know, it's by the same director who made.... Oh yes, what's going on in Rwanda is perfectly abominable, but right here in France, in the city suburbs, there's going to be a civil war one of these days, mark my words.... I don't much care for the music of Pierre Boulez, do you? And Milan Kundera-yes, he writes directly in French now! And just think, in Czechoslovakia, that playwright, what's his name, who used to be in prison, he got elected president! And the situation in Sarajevo...-to think that it's in the very same city that the First World War broke out, no I didn't see the film Bernard-Henri Lévy made on Bosnia but his wife Arielle Dombasle played in another film I liked a lot, just a minute, the title will come back to me, speaking of which, I'm sure you approve Ariane Mnouchkine's hunger strike, she and her company came to town a while ago, they did a play by Molière, it was unforgettable. The Wings of Desire is a marvellous film, don't you agree? Wim Wenders was in Portugal for a while-have you ever been to Lisbon? I happened to be there just two weeks before the great fire broke out-what a tragedy! And that earthquake in Japan, I read that it took the firetrucks and ambulances much too long to get there. And David Waco and O. J. Simpson...oh there's so much violence in the world.... But come outside for a minute, let me show you my hydrangea, they're simply exquisite this year!
This is serious.
A century or a century and a half ago (and a century and a half is nothing, it's the birth of our grandparents or great-grandparents, in other words nothing), writers could still write with an eye to broadening their readers' horizons.
In the middle of the nineteenth century, readers led lives which, like our own, had their ups and downs; but these lives were restricted to reality to a degree it is almost impossible for us to imagine. Their reality was present, rather than presented or represented. They had no cameras, no radios, no telephones, no cars; still less did they have TV sets in their living-rooms or movie-houses in their neighbourhoods, to say nothing of computers, fax machines, video cameras, CD-ROMs, and the Worldwide Web.
From the moment they got up in the morning to the moment they went to bed at night, these readers basically knew only what they could see, hear, and touch. The streets of their towns and cities were only what they were. Their sights and sounds had never been duplicated, recorded on film or magnetic tape-much less invaded by sights and sounds from elsewhere. Their only access, in the here and now, to distant times and places, was through words: tales and legends handed down from one generation to the next; theatrical productions on feast days; chapbooks; the Gospel stories reiterated in Sunday sermons-and finally, for the happy few who had a modicum of education and leisure time: actual novels (often serialized in the evening newspaper); actual poetry; actual plays.
As a general rule, readers of the mid-nineteenth century frequented people from their own milieu; they had no paid holidays, so did not go gallivanting off to other parts of the world; literature, whether high or low, elitist or popular, was their only form of escape from reality; literature alone enabled them to break away from the visible, tangible world, get acquainted with people, countries, and lifestyles different from their own-and even to travel to imaginary lands. (I am purposely leaving aside two other fabulous forms of escape from reality: music, because it conveys no specific content, and dreams, because they are not a cultural phenomenon.)
Despite the relative monotony of their existence, these readers possessed a number of reassuring certainties. They had virtually no doubt, for instance, that God existed; and very little doubt that there was life after death. Moreover, they were steeped in long-established traditions about which they cared deeply-religious festivals on specific days of the year, winter evening gatherings among peasants, lace headdresses for women, wild dancing at harvest-time or on Bastille Day, turkey and chestnuts at Christmas, Easter cakes baked with time-honoured recipes, the ceremonious gesture of uncorking a bottle of wine.... In a word, each of these readers had one cultural identity.
Contemporary readers, on the other hand, have a thousand, which is tantamount to saying that they have none. Even in the least developed, the most inaccessible part of the country, where ancient customs have survived to some extent, the arrival of television some thirty years ago put a halt to evening gatherings: images replaced words and the TV set usurped the symbolic function of the hearth, becoming the convivial center around which family members gather.to remain silent.
So here is what I said to myself, when my benevolent but chaotically cultivated hostess finally allowed me to return to my room: in the course of the past 150 years, the role of writers has been radically and irreversibly transformed. Our purpose is no longer to weave magic tapestries in front of our readers' eyes, broaden their horizons, incite them to dream or fantasize about new things, multiply and enrich their experiences.... No, for our readers are every bit as savvy as we are. This evening on television, they have the choice between a documentary film on voodoo in West Africa, a 1940's American detective thriller, a talk show on AIDS, and a historical panorama of the Bolshoi Ballet; if they decide to switch on the radio they can listen to Harlem rap, Hebrew religious chants, a West Indian meringue, or a Monteverdi opera; and, provided they live in a big city and have some money in their pockets, they can take off for Sweden, India, or Japan by attending a Bergman, Satyajit Ray, or Ozu retrospective; they can take in a play by Brecht or Aeschylus, watch a dance performance from Johannesburg, or listen to a concert of experimental music from China; they can drink Manhattan cocktails, eat a Vietnamese meal, go dancing afterwards in Argentina, and end up the night singing in an Irish pub.
Perhaps, I said to myself (having now locked the door of my room so that my hostess would understand I was sleeping), the role of today's intellectuals and writers is just the opposite of what it used to be.
To narrow down. To isolate. To build walls. To concentrate. To hold at bay the dizzying dazzling rush of sounds and images, choices, information, and influences. To create a void. A silence.
To say one thing, and only one. Or two...
but in depth.

Hmm.universal writers for limited readers and limited writers for universal readers-is that what it boils down to? I must admit this way of framing the problem is somewhat simplistic-as often happens when one is under the influence of a bad mood. As usual, reality is more complex. Let us attempt, then, to add some nuances to the picture.
Ever since literature has existed, national labels have been stuck onto it. Novels were described as being French, English, German, Russian, Spanish, and so forth-and this was only natural, for they indeed reflected (or rather crystallized) essential aspects of the countries in which their authors lived: landscapes, sensibilities, psychological types, social or racial conflicts, religious and popular beliefs, historical backgrounds, and so forth. When novelists went abroad, their descriptions of the countries they visited were written for their readers at home. (There is nothing objective, for example, about the "Japan" depicted by Pierre Loti; it is a "Japan" specifically conceived for French eyes, ears, and palate; the same thing could be said of George Sand's "Venice"). Even writers who lived abroad for long periods of time did not lose sight of who they were and whom they were writing for: the plots, atmospheres, characters, and dilemmas of Turgenev's novels, despite the two decades he spent in France, remained resolutely Russian.
What is the situation now, at the end of the twentieth century? As far as national or cultural identity goes, every imaginable tendency is represented on the shelves of our bookstore, from Wanderlust (Chatwin, Le Clézio) to glossolalia (Joyce).... I should like, however, to take a closer look at three types of contemporary writing identities, which I shall call polarized, pulverized, and finally, divided.
At one extreme of the identity spectrum, then, a large number of novelists continue to draw their inspiration essentially from their rootedness in a particular land, history, and culture. Particularly in those parts of the world where the novel is a nascent, recent phenomenon, the reference to national identity is still virtually compulsory. Martinique, for instance, is rightly proud of having authors like Patrick Chamoiseau and Raphaël Confiant, whose books deploy an impressive verbal energy to evoke the joys and miseries of the island-its history, its traditional beliefs and folk-tales, its natural and human catastrophes. A somewhat analogous situation pertains in French Canada: Quebec literature is young and therefore still somewhat obsessed with its identity. (Also as in the West Indies, it has a love-hate relationship with the great French literary tradition, to which it owes a great deal but from which it adamantly proclaims its independence.)
Other "polarized" writers, however, (any number of examples come to mind, including Toni Morrison, Russell Banks, John McGahern...) have nothing to prove and nothing to teach; their attachment to a specific group or land is not conflictual in any urgent, present way; simply, within their local universe, they have discovered all the wealth and complexity and contradictions of the human soul, and can therefore go on exploring this universe forever, without inflicting boredom on either themselves or their readers.
Of all the novelists of the twentieth century, I can think of none who aspired more ardently than Romain Gary to embody the opposite extreme of the spectrum, namely mad multiplication or pulverization of identity. Gary managed the rather incredible feat of being perceived by posterity as a French writer-whereas, born a Jew in Lithuania in 1914, raised in Russia and Poland until he settled in Nice in 1928, he left France in 1940 and did not return there to live until twenty years later; and even then he continued to be a compulsive globe-trotter, speaking seven languages fluently, writing his books and articles in two of them, translating himself back and forth, and declaring proudly: "All my literary roots are planted in my métissage; I am a bastard."
Gary was a "bastard", also, in the literal sense of the term; and there is probably a connection between his two forms of illegitimacy. Never having known for certain who his father was, he lived from birth under a series of false names (Roman Kacew, Romain Gary, Fosco Sinibaldi, Shatan Bogat, Emile Ajar). Moreover, because of his mother's grandiose dreams for his future, he already suffered in early childhood from a painful sense of uncertainty about his own existence. His favourite joke was the one about the chameleon: you put it on blue cloth and it turns blue, you put it on red cloth and it turns red...you put it on Scottish plaid, it goes crazy!
How, then, despite the mind-boggling diversity of his cultural and national roots, did Gary manage to deserve the stamp of "authentic Frenchman"? Well, he fought for Free France under the orders of Charles de Gaulle, served as a bomber pilot from 1942 to 1944, was decorated with several military medals and was named Compagnon de la libération...and, at the same time, he wrote-in French-a magnificent novel called A European Education, which won a major literary prize and became a national bestseller. Yes, no doubt about it: that makes a great Frenchman-even from the unlikely raw material of a Russian-Polish Jewish bastard.
Romain Gary's behaviour after the war was even more dumbfounding. In 1945, when he learned (at the same time as the rest of the world) about the massive extermination of the European Jews, he had two possible identity choices at his disposal, both perfectly justifiable and highly gratifying: he could proudly claim to belong either to the group of heroes (the glorious French resistance fighters) or to the group of victims (the persecuted Jews).1 It is an indication of both Gary's nobility and his eccentricity that he opted for neither of these choices. Instead, he sat down and wrote a far-fetched futuristic novel about the oppression of blacks in Harlem (Tulipe, 1946), followed by a novel whose hero was a rather likeable, well-meaning collaborationist (Le Grand Vestiaire, 1948).
For the rest of his life, Gary would strive not only to understand but to become the human species in its entirety. His novels are set in the past, the present, and the future; their plots unfold in every one of the five continents; their protagonists are clowns, ambassadors, prostitutes, intellectuals, policemen, rug vendors, arms dealers, little boys, aristocrats, anarchists, hippies, Jewish violinists....
What Gary was seeking to embrace by means of this prodigal, oceanic oeuvre, was not "humanity" as a universal, abstract entity, but rather (and this is a very different thing) every particular human. His own lack of identity, while it caused him intense suffering, also freed him from the narrow determining frameworks in which most of us are caught up. He did not see himself as a "man without qualities" (he had strong attachments to particular landscapes, languages, types of music), but the very multiplicity of his allegiances made it impossible for him to adopt partisan points of view. He was profoundly irritated by everything that resembled national, religious, sexual, or racial pride.... Such pride seemed to him a trap, a dangerous delusion, a barrier to communication.
Between these two extremes (polarized and pulverized identities), a new species of writer has appeared over the past century or so, a species one might call divided.
To be a divided writer, it does not suffice to change countries (like Henry James) or languages (like Jan Potocki); in addition, you must suffer from it. In other words, the displacement must challenge your very identity and become the central, painful theme of your existence.
Perhaps the first divided writer, in this sense of the word, was Franz Kafka, writing in German in a city that spoke Czech-the man for whom nothing was self-evident-neither his language, nor his national and religious identity, nor his status as a son, a fiancé, a doctor of law, an insurance company employee.nor even his status as a human being. (Might he not, rather, be a bug?)
Is Kafka a feather in the cap of "German literature" or a jewel in the crown of "Czech literature"? The question is preposterous. In much the same way, it is amusing to watch both France and Ireland laying claim to the work of Samuel Beckett for "their" respective literatures-as if Beckett's books did not differ fundamentally from those of Victor Hugo. After all, the author of Endgame spent his life proclaiming his disgust for all forms of belonging, including to the human race.
In the course of the twentieth century-with its massive transfers of population and its ever-swifter means of transportation and communication-divided writers have become increasingly numerous. I am thinking, of course, of Vladimir Nabokov, Gertrude Stein, Jean Rhys, R. M. Rilke; closer to us I am thinking of Salman Rushdie, Kazuo Ishiguro, Derek Walcott, Michael Ondaatje, Jorge Semprun, Milan Kundera, Hector Bianciotti; closer still I am thinking of Ying Chen, Linda Leï, or David Homel, and I am also thinking of friends of mine, poets and novelists living in exile in Paris like Leïla Sebbar, Adam Zagajewski, Luba Jurgenson, C. D. Williams, Adam Biro, or again, the many gifted writers of the Haitian diaspora in New York, Montreal, and Miami; the list is long...and finally, I admit, I am thinking a bit of myself.
These writers are neither rooted nor uprooted; indeed, they frequently describe the very concept of roots as an illusion, not to say a dangerous metaphor. They are neither sedentary nor nomadic. They are in exile.
According to Vera Linhartova, a Czech writer living in France, for those writers who choose exile, "the very word `exile' is particularly inappropriate. For a person who leaves his country with no regrets and no intention to return, the place he abandons is far less important than the one in which he must arrive. Henceforth, he has chosen not to live `outside of this place', but to embark upon a path leading towards a `non-place', an elsewhere that will remain forever beyond his grasp. Like the nomad, he feels `at home' wherever he sets foot."
I find it difficult to imagine a statement about exile with which I could agree less. The place, the language displaced writers leave behind are the places and languages of their childhood. How can they possibly write anything true, beautiful, powerful, if they have forgotten or repressed their childhood, obliterated the images and emotions connected with it, decided in advance that the place of their childhood is "far less important" than the one in which they must arrive...?
Non-places do not exist-or, if they do, they exist outside of this world, in the cosmos of abstract ideas explored by philosophers and mystics; under no circumstances can they be the territory of a novelist. To claim that a writer can be a nomad and feel at home wherever he sets foot is to display either denial or naiveté. No one in the world feels at home wherever he set foot-not even authentic nomads! If you take a group of Sahraouis out of their desert tents and plunk them down in the middle of a California Jacuzzi party or the Frankfurt book fair, it is likely they will be more than a little ill at ease.
At first glance, it might seem that Linhartova's lyrical praise of voluntary exile might be applied to the (extreme) case of Romain Gary. In fact, though, it cannot. Gary explained on many occasions that he needed to keep on the move because he hated being "bound hand and foot...inside myself" and rebelled against "the limits thus set on my appetite for life, or rather, lives." Only once, at the edge of the Red Sea, thanks to a sort of suspension of time (waiting for a passport validation), he managed, "with the help of some hashish, to escape from the penitentiary that condemns one to be only oneself."
Writers in exile, far from feeling "at home wherever they set foot," are usually at home nowhere. People often ask me, "So you're equally comfortable in English and in French?" and when I answer, "No, equally uncomfortable," they think I'm being coy. But I'm not. If you're comfortable, you don't write. The literary machine only jerks into motion if there's a minimum of friction, anxiety, misery, some little grain of sand to crunch, grind, jam, stimulate the cogs.
Divided writers are not stateless people. They are not citizens of the world. They are intimately acquainted, not with one culture (like Jean Giono), not with all cultures (as was Gary's ambition), but with two. Sometimes as many as three or four, but usually two. This means they have the point of view of their original culture on the acquired one, and vice versa. Far from saying "I'm from nowhere, so your little squabbles are of no concern to me," they generally say, "Since I feel concern about two countries, I feel concern about all countries." As a general rule, however, this does not incite them to leap into the arena of political activism. Rarely, at least in their writings, do they practise what Sartre called engagement. They tend to preserve a certain distance. This distance is precious to them. It is what makes them suffer. Understand. Write.
"I now realize that whereas division used to torment me, I've grown attached to it and care about preserving it. It is perpetually in danger of unity, or reunification, I don't know what the right word would be. Today, it's this very imbalance that makes me exist, makes me write." (Leïla Sebbar, Lettres parisiennes)
Here then, it seems to me, are what the writers of this new species are saying.
They are saying, first of all, that in a world where people can choose their religion the way they choose a brand of yogurt at the supermarket, and change religions the way they change undershirts, it is no longer possible to look to the Beyond for comfort, a sure sense of identity, reassurance as to our right to exist.
They are saying, secondly, that our collective self-confidence has been further shaken by all we have learned about the infinitely small and the infinitely large, that is, about chromosomes and planets, that is, about the highly arbitrary, unlikely, and therefore poignant nature of our presence on this Earth. ("And often and willingly," wrote Pirandello as early as 1904 in his remarkable novel The Late Mathias Pascal, "often and willingly, forgetting we are but infinitesimal atoms, we show one another mutual respect and admiration, and are even prepared to go to battle for a tiny piece of land, or to complain about things which, were we truly aware of our insignificance, would seem to us nothing but silly trifles.")
They are saying, thirdly that for modern Westerners there will never again be such a thing as a nice comfortable, cradle-to-grave identity. That the nineteenth-century reader's certainties may have had their advantages, but that they have vanished never to return. That je est un autre, irremediably. That all of us are multiple from birth onwards, not only because of the intermixing of populations and languages in the modern world-not only because television acquaints us, volens nolens, with dozens of cultures other than our own-but, more profoundly, more existentially, because we now know that each of us, physically, is the product of two utterly different individuals, and that, psychologically, we are molded by the gazes, words, gestures, and expectations of our fellow human beings.
They are saying, fourthly, that in spite of this, the differences among individuals (and also among cultures) continue to be worthy of interest.
They are saying, finally, that being two-even if it's somewhat nerve-wracking, even if it makes you feel nostalgic or spleeny now and then-is preferable to being one (the word identity, as we all know, derives from the Latin idem, same)-and also preferable to being multitudinal. (Poor Gary!)
Melancholy is almost always part of the Weltanschauung of this new species of writer. So is self-irony. Even when they smile, one can often detect a faint sadness in their eyes. " `And I'm not even a foreigner. I'm from neither here nor there. I'm from somewhere in between,' observed Gesser in a melancholy tone of voice." (David Homel, Sonya & Jack)
"Expatriates-the new expatriates and even the old ones-are like that. There's this back-and-forth mechanism inside them which they just can't stop; they're constantly comparing, here with there, there with here, maybe we should invent a nationality just for them, the nationality of the here-and-there, and of the special mixture this creates and that has no name." (Pierrette Fleutiaux, Allons-nous être heureux?)
Or again, this declaration by Salman Rushdie in a recent interview: "Clearly the consequences of migration are that every aspect of the migrant's life is put into question.literally everything about the culture that you bring and your belief systems and indeed your personality is put into question, because.the roots of the self, classically, are thought to lie in the place you come from, in the language you speak, in the people you know, and in the customs that you live with. And when you migrate..., you lose all four of those roots, and you suddenly have to find a new way of rooting your idea of yourself."
Divided writers are rarely as serene and eupeptic as the disciples of what Confiant and Chamoiseau call la créolité; they may express admiration for the glossolalic theories of Edouard Glissant, but will be unlikely to imitate them; similarly, they will tend to be wary of multilingual word-play à la James Joyce-because, for them, the superimposition of languages and culture is anything but a game. And they are deeply at odds with the "multiculturalist" values currently fashionable in the United States, which are often nothing but a handy disguise for the childishly arrogant, intolerant, supercilious reaffirmation of the narrowest and most visible particular identities.
Division, on the contrary, often induces a sense of inadequacy, not to say guilt. Leading a double existence can make you feel duplicitous-and even, in extreme cases (viz. Romain Gary), schizophrenic.
These writers of a new species know it is absurd to be nationalistic, sectarian, chauvinistic, and to enrol one's talent in the service of a cause (be it revolutionary, moral, or religious).because it is absurd-or miraculous, which amounts to the same thing-to be alive.
These writers are neither heroes nor victims. They attempt to look at themselves, and therefore the human species as well, with as much lucidity as possible. They are more interested in the weak than the strong, and more at ease with paradox than parable. Except in true crises, they are unlikely to deliver moral lessons, wave banners, or go to war. They are even reluctant to make speeches or join parties. They tend to avoid chaos as much as possible, rather than to reflect it in their writings. They construct, reconstruct, on the page, a world in which it is possible for them to breathe, live, move. ("Our only nation is imagination," as Raphaël Confiant once put it.) Their purpose is not to bolster certainties, but to rattle them.
This is what they do. This is the one and only thing they do
...but in depth.
Nancy Huston is the author of (among other books) Plainsong, The Goldberg Variations, and Slow Emergencies.

1. These, indeed, are the two principal stances on which national, cultural, or racial identity is usually based: peoples will tend to think of themselves either as heroic (e.g. muscle-flexing Yankees) or as victimized (the native Americans or the African slaves mistreated by those muscle-flexers). In our times, the victim stance is distinctly more valued than the heroic. Some political leaders construct their rhetoric so as to back both of these horses at once (such as Louis Farrakhan, according to whom Blacks are a superior race, persecuted and oppressed by all the other races).


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