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comment parler des faits qui ne se sont pas produits?

21 december 2020

Comment parler des faits qui ne se sont pas produits?, asks Pierre Bayard's newest book, "How do you talk about things that haven't happened?" Talking about things that haven't happened is better known as fiction on the one hand, or lies on the other, but Bayard isn't really interested in either fiction or lies. In this book he discusses more complicated fabulations, crucial to their authors' well-being, that become socially powerful stories when enough people buy into them.

Bayard's first extended example serves as a pattern for those that follow. In 1997, a woman named Misha Defonseca published a harrowing memoir of her journey eastward from Belgium across Europe during the second world war, in search of her deported parents. Defonseca witnessed many key events of the war, and survived thrilling adventures such as being sheltered by wolves … at this point I was saying "wait a minute." Especially when Bayard claimed that Defonseca's book "n'avait eu qu'une audience limitée aux États-Unis" – had only a limited readership in the US – which was almost like a hint directly to me that he was making the whole thing up.

That would be just like Pierre Bayard, but in this case he was not making it up. Survivre avec les loups ("Survival among the Wolves") is a real book, but Defonseca is not a real person. The story was made up by Monique de Wael, who cast herself as "Misha" and changed everything about her life to shape it into the stuff of a heart-wrenching bestseller. Or did she? Bayard argues that de Wael really did write her life story. She lost her parents – who were Gentiles and in her father's case, a collaborator who betrayed resistance fighters to the Nazis – and she felt herself metaphorically feral in the world.

Well, de Wael should have written a novel. In fact, any writer who is tempted to forge a new life for themself by writing a fresh life story would be well-advised to cast it as fiction, a move that grants all lies a free pass. But Bayard argues that there is a genre somewhere between nonfiction, fiction, and lie, the classical exemplum, that crystallizes ideas and value judgments by condensing them into an illustrative story and attaching that story to a real-life figure.

Again and again in Comment parler des faits qui ne se sont pas produits?, Bayard brings up cases of writers who attach fabricated but fascinating stories to people those stories had little to do with. Sigmund Freud did it for Leonardo da Vinci. Hannah Arendt did it for Adolf Eichmann. Anaïs Nin did it for herself. Claas Relotius did it for an entire town in Minnesota, in an attempt to fathom how anybody could have voted for Donald Trump.

The most intriguing items in Comment parler des faits qui ne se sont pas produits? are urban legends that have accreted around such exemplary fabulations. These involve not just famous individuals but entire social dynamics. The 1938 panic produced by Orson Welles' broadcast of The War of the Worlds, and the 1964 killing of Kitty Genovese while numerous neighbors watched indifferently, became mirrors where American society looked on itself appalled.

And you probably have guessed that I characterized both the Welles story and the Genovese story as Bayard initially does, with credulity. But both episodes are fabulations. Welles performed The War of the Worlds, and people were briefly creeped out; Genovese was really murdered, and a few people saw her killer initially harass her (some of them even called the cops). But there was no post-broadcast panic, and there were no witnesses to the murder itself.

The legendary quality of each incident, argues Bayard, is still significant: in each case, we read into the events lessons that we are already convinced we need to learn about ourselves. Instant mass media really is a system for disseminating panic, and people really do have a tendency to ignore trouble if there are a lot of witnesses to it (the "bystander effect" discovered in the wake of the Genovese murder). In each case, fictions about an initial fact became facts about the social world. Did we need the catalyst of inaccuracy to understand – or confirm – something about that world?

Being Pierre Bayard, the author of course celebrates fabulations, the more brazen the better. He snarks at the work of chicaneurs, the killjoys who come along and debunk all these outrageous stories; he argues for more and better access to training people how to make things up. This comes uncomfortably close at times to admiring Big Lies, but I don't think Bayard is that blasé. Chicaneurs may be no fun, but their work is necessary; and just because Bayard enjoys (some) lies doesn't mean that he cannot distinguish them from reality.

A central story in Comment parler des faits qui ne se sont pas produits? is that of Maria-Antonietta Macciocchi, author of a 1971 travelogue about China that bought heavily into the ideology that any human problem could be solved with the application of Mao's little red book. Not only had Maoism eliminated human competition and ushered in an epoch of cooperation, but practical application of its tenets solved numerous engineering problems, and led to increases in industrial and agricultural production that could only be measured in orders of magnitude.

Which now sounds insane, and should have sounded insane in the '70s, and Bayard mocks its insanity. But others, at the time, did not; as Sovietism was increasingly discredited by the 1970s European left, many thinkers latched onto visions like Macciocchi's in order to sustain the dream that socialism was realizable somewhere. Could they really have believed this hogwash? "Macciocchi croyait et ne croyait pas dans ce pays imaginaire," says Bayard: she both did and didn't believe in this imaginary China (102), and her disbelief was not active doubt (which exchanges places by turns with credulity), but a form of clivage, of split cognition:

la coexistence des deux convictions qui, devenues autonomes, vivent leur propre vie simultanément, à des étages différents de l'appareil psychique (102)

the coexistence of two certainties which, becoming independent of each other, lead their own lives simultaneously, at different levels of one's mental organization
A timely concept, in a winter when the President of the United States and most of his political party are officially convinced that an election was just stolen from them by means and actors that they cannot name or even form a coherent conspiracy theory about. To get up and walk around and eat and clean themselves, the Trump loyalists of the 2020-21 transition cannot possibly subscribe to an epistemology in which the Great Biden Fraud is possible; yet they do get up, etc., and thus they must be operating on two mental levels at once.

And Trumpists are driven by their own need for psychic organization and defenses against too much reality, which one can identify with in the abstract. But with Bayard, we can't stop insisting that such driven souls are also deliberately mistaken about reality itself.

Bayard, Pierre. Comment parler des faits qui ne se sont pas produits? Paris: Minuit, 2020.