home     authors     titles     dates     links     about

demain est écrit

7 january 2019

Towards the end of À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, Marcel Proust's narrator says of a time when he was feeling particularly "in the moment":

momentanément éclipsé, mon passé ne projetait plus devant moi cette ombre de lui-même que nous appelons notre avenir

[Obscured for a moment, my past no longer projected before me that shadow of itself that we call our future].
Strict logic would demand that we think of the present as the leading edge of our past into the blank unknown. But very often, we feel that the future is already on the books: Demain est écrit, as Pierre Bayard titles his contrarian 2005 study in literary criticism.

In Demain est écrit, Bayard builds on the themes of Le Titanic fera naufrage, which of course he would publish eleven years later. That's the way Bayardian chronologies work. But where Titanic was about how literary works prefigure events in the world at large (and Le plagiat par anticipation would be about how they prefigure other literary works), Demain est écrit is about how authors draw on their own futures when composing.

Bayard's classic case is Oscar Wilde. Not only did his persecution and death seem to loom over his earlier writing (he wrote The Picture of Dorian Gray, for instance, before ever meeting Lord Alfred Douglas), but Wilde effectively lived his career in reverse. "La triomphe, puis l'écriture, puis le rejet et l'anonymat" (150): first success, then publication, then rejection, then obscurity.

Demain est écrit includes many other examples, which range from wobbly to eerie. Wobbliest is an assertion that in the whiteness of the whale, Herman Melville foreshadowed that his writing career would come to nothing after he published Moby-Dick: "il était un écrivain fini," says Bayard (55). But that isn't factually so. In the five years after Moby-Dick went belly-up with the public, Melville wrote three other novels (two, Pierre and The Confidence-Man, now thought of as substantial masterpieces), and all of his great short stories. And he wasn't done there, publishing tons of poetry in the decades to come and leaving Billy Budd in his desk when he died. To think of Moby-Dick as the end of Melville's creative career is a bit like thinking that Flaubert was through after Madame Bovary. Everybody's in decline after their peak, I guess.

On the eerie side is an anecdote about André Breton. Actually an anecdote told by André Breton, which might lead some to be skeptical of its accuracy, but it's still pretty weird. In 1934, Breton was hanging out in a Montmartre nightspot when he saw a gorgeous woman at another table, writing a letter. With impeccable surrealist logic, Breton decided that she must be writing the letter to him, and when she finished writing it and left the café, he got up and followed her around Paris all evening.

After this memorable night, Breton went home and was vaguely reminded of a poem he'd published 11 years earlier that laid out, in very precise detail, the exact trajectory of his walk after/with Lamba in 1934. Breton had all but forgotten writing the poem – that part rings true, for any writer. What was going on? Breton's deliberately irrational explanation is that the world is more complicated than it looks, with unobserved pathways cutting diagonally across its various times and places, in directions we generally think impossible.

The woman, Jacqueline Lamba, was pleased enough with his stalkerish attention eventually to marry Breton. And she had been writing to him. This last detail suggests another theory to Bayard: that as a fangirl, Lamba remembered the 1923 poem much better than Breton did, and deliberately recreated it by leading him on its itinerary. But the story remains odd. The rationalist solution (it was a set-up) merely excludes the uncanny: it leaves the phenomenon of a literary work from 1923 describing an event from the author's life in 1934.

And so with many another writer. Maupassant described the madness he would succumb to a few years later. Poe prefigured his wife Virginia's death repeatedly, even back when she was a very young child and he barely knew her. Kafka wrote about a relationship he was yet to have … well, he would, wouldn't he … but so did Enlightenment icon Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Virginia Woolf prefigured her suicide, which seems explicable enough, but Belgian poet Émile Verhaeren prefigured his accidental death. Borges (you would hardly expect him not to appear in such a list) showed an unusual fascination with windows and violent injury, well before he was nearly killed in 1938 by walking into a windowframe. Actually Bayard uses Borges' experience as the type of the rational explanation for these foretellings: Buenos Aires is a place with lousy infrastructure and bad lighting, and it's reasonable that a poet might both fear fenestral near-decapitation and one day experience it.

Whatever the explanations, rational or non-, the fact remains that some future "loomings," as Melville would have called them, are so momentous that writers pick up on events before they've happened. The future casts a penumbra over the past – not just vice-versa. Bayard proposes an inversion of the usual approaches of psychoanalysis, as well as a few new impossible verb tenses, to account for these loomings. One wonders what he will think of next, or perhaps, since I'm reading his books appropriately out of sequence, one wonders what he will think of before.

Bayard, Pierre. Demain est écrit. Paris: Minuit, 2005.