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il existe d'autres mondes

21 february 2019

Il existe d'autres mondes is one of Pierre Bayard's weaker books, but even a weak book by Bayard is more entertaining than many another literary theorist's stronger ones.

The weakness is not in Bayard's close readings of texts ranging from Dostoevsky, Freud, and Nabokov to science-fiction writer René Barjavel, giallo authors Fruttero & Lucentini, and the TV series Sliders. In all these texts (and quite a few others), Bayard picks up on elements of the uncanny that define a certain parallel-worlds genre. Rather, the weakness is in Bayard's insistence on the reality of parallel worlds. As his title suggests, "other worlds exist," and he means this literally, if (as always) he means it tongue firmly in cheek.

Bayard is not talking here about temporal paradoxes, which he has explored more convincingly in Demain est écrit and Le Titanic fera naufrage. Nor is he talking about the infinity of worlds, a theory which entails the existence of multiple variants on this one, given that every possible variant must exist out there somewhere. No; in this book, dedicated to Schrödinger's cat, the idea is that quantum variations produce endless gardens of forking paths from every possible present, worlds that continue to exist alongside our own, but just behind the veil. (The book features an epigram from Borges.)

Of course this theory is deliberately loony for strategic purposes, but it also, I think, warps the principles of quantum theory, which work at the level of quarks and such but not at the level of cats or people. But if one accepts Bayard's wobbly (and thus somewhat half-hearted) premise, one can have fun with this book. The idea that artists can pick up on vibrations from nearby universes (without visiting them, because once you're on a given track you can never switch) is titillating, and works best with writers like Kafka who seem to move through dream portals into alternative realities. (Though at that, Bayard often cites Kafka in his other books, and uses him to illustrate temporal paradoxes as well … there is little that Kafka can't be used to illustrate.)

"Other worlds exist" is also a principle of much of Bayard's reader-response criticism, which continually shows (à la Stanley Fish and others) that different readers aren't always reading the same thing. Perhaps not even living in the same world, as Thomas Kuhn (another Bayardian favorite) suggested of realities described by different scientific paradigms. For Bayard, the universe really is, as Louis MacNeice put it, "incorrigibly plural."

Bayard, Pierre. Il existe d'autres mondes. Paris: Minuit, 2014.