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le titanic fera naufrage

2 september 2018

Pierre Bayard has made a career out of exploring paradoxes, writing book after book in a series actually called Paradoxe from Éditions de Minuit – for all I know, Bayard is the only author in that series. He has written about discussing books you've never read and places you've never seen, about plagiarists who steal from writers not yet born, about digressions that are central to main texts, and about fictional detectives who get the solutions to their mysteries all wrong. Recently Bayard has tackled a paradox with existential implications: writers who describe the course of future events. Which way does time's arrow really run?

Bayard's title, Le Titanic fera naufrage ("The Titanic is going to sink!") makes one think immediately of his central text, Morgan Robertson's 1898 novel Futility. Speaking of books you're never read, I'm not sure I've even seen a copy of Futilty (later retitled The Wreck of the Titan). But anyone interested in doomed ocean liners knows a good bit about Robertson's book, which discusses in uncanny detail events still 14 years in the future.

Bayard makes Futility central to his text, interweaving a discussion of Robertson's prescience with other literary examples. In parallel with Robertson, Bayard presents excerpts from the life and writing of W.T. Stead, a Titanic victim who had his own weird foreknowledge of fate.

Coincidence and Zeitgeist, Bayard admits, have a lot to do with most incidences of foreboding. If you live under a volcano and dream about being buried Pompeii-style, you get no points for clairvoyance when it happens. Indeed, Bayard uses terminology in well-defined ways to separate different knowledges of what's to come. "Precognition" and "premonition" are terms he reserves for truly uncanny foreknowledges (in more or less exact detail, respectively). "Prediction," more banally, is a rational laying-out of what will ensue, and there's often not much remarkable about it. Half the people who predict the outcome of the Super Bowl are right (at least after the conference-title games). If you boldly claim that our grandkids will be zooming around in driverless cars, you're probably right. Yet some predictions – like H.G. Wells' famous description of atomic warfare in The World Set Free (1914), are keener than others.

One gets the sense in such cases of something at work that is more than prosaic but less than supernatural, a general sense of what's fixing to happen that Bayard calls "anticipation" (a term he also uses to describe plagiarism in chronological reverse). Anticipations range from downright eerie echoes of detail (a castaway named Richard Parker being cannibalized by his fellow survivors in 1884, decades after Edgar Allan Poe described the fate of Richard Parker in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym) to large-scale echoes that involve history repeating itself (Franz Werfel's Vierzig Tage des Musa Dagh, 1933, which previews the Final Solution as it treats the Armenian genocide historically).

And then there are weird worst-case scenarios, some of which Bayard can only explain by invoking la loi de Murphy. Haitian poet Frankétienne, in the winter of 2009-10, was rehearsing a new play about a massive earthquake that buries and isolates its victims, theater-of-the-absurd style. Before the play could premiere, Frankétienne himself was buried by the great Haitian earthquake of January 2010 (but luckily, dug out alive). Bayard thinks of the foreknowledge some animals seem to have of earthquakes, fleeing or hunkering down in advance of the catastrophe. Are poets similar? Can they feel the fault lines along which future disasters will happen?

There's something about hindsight that makes foresight stand out. When we look back on history, we tend to do so spatially, in terms of timelines and narrative volumes with their tables of contents. All people had to do was look straight ahead of them, it seems, and they could have seen the stock-market crashes and the surprise attacks they were headed for. When one of them does seem to look up and see what's headed his way, we are extra-cognizant of the oddity. Bayard admits that both confirmation bias and the "effet râteau" (whereby a cluster of coincidences seems supernatural, because we think that events must be regularly distributed across time) make anticipations seem more remarkable than they may really be. Still, the world can only take so many shapes, going forward, and creative writers may by their nature be the best among us at figuring out what shapes it will. Perhaps we should pay as much attention to poets as we do to scientists.

There's a holy-innocent quality about Bayard's writing, I guess one way of saying that he's a poet too. He will blandly state that one writer was influenced by another who lived a century later, that the only way to have an interesting conversation about books is not to read them, that time sometimes goes in reverse. You don't get a sense that he believes any of this faintly goofy stuff; it's rather that you can't make certain striking, poetic points if you keep qualifying them away into tentativeness. We live in a world where, necessarily, we anticipate much of the future as we forget much of the past. We constantly half-create whatever isn't directly in front of us. (And sometimes what is, like right now as I ascribe certain thoughts to the cat sitting on the other side of my laptop.)

Logical positivism may be a logical impossibility. Whenever things start to seem too clear, I recommend a course of reading Pierre Bayard.

Bayard, Pierre. Le Titanic fera naufrage. Paris: Minuit, 2016.